The Americas Blog

El Blog de las Americas

The Americas Blog seeks to present a more accurate perspective on economic and political developments in the Western Hemisphere than is often presented in the United States. It will provide information that is often ignored, buried, and sometimes misreported in the major U.S. media.

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Guest post by Beth Geglia

Efforts to develop semi-privately governed jurisdictions called Economic Development and Employment Zones (ZEDEs) in Honduras have recently emerged anew. ZEDEs, first legislated as Special Development Regions (REDs) and informally known as “charter cities,” “model cities,” or “startup cities,” are a flexible territorial concession that can be used for city-scale real estate and tourism development, resource extraction, energy production, manufacturing, banking, and the expansion of deregulated digital markets.

ZEDEs provide investors with the opportunity to establish their own independent laws and governing structures, judicial systems based in common law and arbitration, regulatory frameworks, and security forces. An international governing body called the Committee for the Adoption of Best Practices, comprised of former members of Ronald Reagan’s Outreach Working Group on Central America and other ideologues from leading neoliberal think tanks, controls the approval process and parts of the internal governance of the ZEDEs nationally.

But for years the future of ZEDEs has been a question mark. National opposition to the project on the grounds that it violated national sovereignty and threatened mass displacement peaked after the passage of constitutional reforms for Special Development Regions (or RED, by their Spanish initials) in 2011. Resistance from community-based organizations like the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH) and the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), as well as the work done by Honduran lawyers and journalists helped lead to a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that the RED reforms were unconstitutional.

The Honduran Congress, under the leadership of Juan Orlando Hernández, the current president of Honduras, un-seated the four magistrates who had voted against the REDs in an overnight, irregular proceeding. The maneuver was deemed by some a “technical coup” — one that allowed legislators to go back to the drawing board and pass a new ZEDE Law in 2013. However, the earlier court ruling had already stopped a few initial city-ventures in their tracks and cast doubt on the feasibility of the project.

Additionally, constant governance crises have characterized the Juan Orlando Hernández administration since it came to office in 2014. In 2015, Hernández faced a national pro-democracy movement that called for his removal following revelations of embezzlement and fraud in the Honduran National Social Security Institute. In 2017, following elections mired by credible reports of fraud,  Hernández imposed a months-long curfew and suspension of constitutional rights in order to quell protests. Protests throughout the country were violently repressed by state security forces, who  killed over thirty people in the weeks before Hernández was sworn in. Since then, his administration – which has received strong backing from the U.S. government – has been further marred by corruption investigations as well as allegations of direct links to drug trafficking and organized crime. Hernández’s own brother, Antonio “Tony” Hernández was found guilty of illegal cocaine trafficking in a Manhattan Federal court in 2019. These numerous controversies, as well as the dysfunction and criminality undergirding them, have made it difficult for the Honduran government to secure large-scale investment for ZEDEs.

Given all of this, even ZEDE advocate Mark Lutter of the Charter City Institute based in Washington DC was surprised to see the first ZEDE publicly launched in May of this year. The Próspera ZEDE, a 58-acre land purchase located in Crawfish Rock on the Caribbean island of Roatán, had been in the works behind the scenes since 2017. It was founded with investment from NeWay Capital and support from former German mining executive Titus Gebel, founder of the Free Private Cities Foundation, among others. The same group hopes to develop a constellation of ZEDEs in La Ceiba, Puerto Cortés, Cuyamel, and Amapala, Honduras. A second ZEDE called “Ciudad Morázan” launched in Choloma, Cortés just months after Próspera.

Today we see both renewed interest in, and opposition to, the ZEDE project. Despite restrictions put in place for Covid-19 prevention, Hondurans in Crawfish Rock have come out to confront NeWay investors in their own community. The issue has received major coverage on national news networks, which have hosted debates on the issue of sovereignty and privatization. In an unprecedented move, the National Lawyers Association of Honduras held a press conference on October 13, adopting an official position that the ZEDE law is unconstitutional and calling for it to be overturned legislatively.

On October 19th, the Bay Islands of Honduras made a similarly unequivocal statement of opposition to the ZEDE. Despite generally being friendly to foreign investment, the Roatán Municipal government signed a declaration alongside the Mayors of Santos Guardiola, Utila, and Guanaja, the Bay Islands Chamber of Tourism, and the Bay Islands Chamber of Commerce. The declaration demands that Congress carry out a popular referendum on ZEDE development in the Department of the Bay Islands in accordance with the right to prior consultation guaranteed under Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which Honduras has ratified. It calls for an investigation into the approval of the Próspera ZEDE, and states: “We are energetically opposed to the installation of ZEDE projects inside our territory and to the government expropriating ancestral lands through the ZEDE Law to be handed over to foreigners for their benefit and profit.” The Federation of Patronatos (local governing councils) of the Bay Islands, the Islander Alliance for Social Justice, and the Native Bay Islanders Professional Labor Association signed a similar statement in August. These and other local organizations have formed the Coordinating Board for Territorial Defense of the Bay Islands in order to challenge ZEDE development. 

In Amapala, a municipality in the southern department of Valle (where the government has been planning ZEDE development with the help of the South Korean aid agency KOICA since 2014), local organizations have organized a new round of demonstrations at the doors of the municipal government. As a result, the mayor, Alberto Cruz, recently stated publicly that he is “categorically, emphatically” against a ZEDE in the municipality, noting that Amapala does not meet the high-population density requirement in the ZEDE Law to trigger a popular referendum on the matter. Cruz’s statements come years after the Association for Holistic Development in the Peninsula of Zacate Grande (ADEPZA) and other organizations in Amapala campaigned against ZEDE development, arguing that it would exacerbate a process of land dispossession that is already underway.

Around Choloma and San Pedro Sula, teachers’ groups that formed during the 2019 national strikes against education restructuring reforms – seen as a move to weaken the public education system  – have organized virtual forums to share information on the ZEDE law and its implications for Honduras. New organizations have sprung up on a national level, like Movimiento Patria (The Homeland Movement), comprised primarily of Honduran business owners and politicians. The organization formed over the Hernández administration’s mishandling of Covid-19 funds and has now opposed the ZEDE model of investment.

Will we see disaster capitalism in Honduras after Hurricanes Eta and Iota? 

In Naomi Klein’s classic The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Klein discusses the capitalization of crisis in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch. Mitch changed the course of history in Central America in 1998, but its most lasting impacts were not the destruction wrought by the hurricane itself. Domestic elites and foreign interests used the state of crisis and the need for reconstruction to pass sweeping reforms. The reforms allowed for the privatization of key trade and transportation infrastructure, the state telephone company, and other key sectors. The Honduran government overturned land reform laws and swiftly passed a pro-business mining law that expanded resource extraction throughout the country.

The ZEDEs themselves seem to follow disaster around. They were proposed in Honduras following the 2009 military coup that left the country  economically depressed, militarized,  and in the hands of concessionist right-wing leaders with ties to drug trafficking and money laundering. Since then, deteriorating conditions in Honduras and the “failed state” narrative have been used to justify the ZEDE’s outsourced governments as being better than the alternative. 

After years of stagnation, ZEDEs were once again proposed as a solution to crisis in 2018 when tens of thousands of Hondurans fled to the US-Mexico border in migrant caravans. After Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017, startup city enthusiasts and would-be investors convened in Washington DC to discuss using private cities run on blockchain technologies and cryptocurrencies to rebuild the island. They subsequently gathered in Puerto Rico to try to move forward with their city-ventures, but were met with local opposition. 

Last month, northern Honduras was ravaged by Hurricanes Eta and Iota. Both hurricanes, which hit less than two weeks apart, are among the strongest in recorded history.  The Orlando Hernández administration has blocked aid from entering ports unless it goes directly through government agencies. Many Hondurans accuse the government of having embezzled aid funds and supplies for the Covid-19 pandemic, and hope to channel hurricane relief directly to local organizations. Like in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch, however, the humanitarian crisis may be used to accelerate long-term, structural reforms. In the absence of political will and capacity to care for the needs of newly devastated communities, and with just one year left of Hernández’s second term, it is likely that ZEDEs will again be promoted as a method of reconstruction and negotiated behind closed doors. Hondurans will have to act fast in nearly impossible conditions if they want to resist them.

Guest post by Beth Geglia

Efforts to develop semi-privately governed jurisdictions called Economic Development and Employment Zones (ZEDEs) in Honduras have recently emerged anew. ZEDEs, first legislated as Special Development Regions (REDs) and informally known as “charter cities,” “model cities,” or “startup cities,” are a flexible territorial concession that can be used for city-scale real estate and tourism development, resource extraction, energy production, manufacturing, banking, and the expansion of deregulated digital markets.

ZEDEs provide investors with the opportunity to establish their own independent laws and governing structures, judicial systems based in common law and arbitration, regulatory frameworks, and security forces. An international governing body called the Committee for the Adoption of Best Practices, comprised of former members of Ronald Reagan’s Outreach Working Group on Central America and other ideologues from leading neoliberal think tanks, controls the approval process and parts of the internal governance of the ZEDEs nationally.

But for years the future of ZEDEs has been a question mark. National opposition to the project on the grounds that it violated national sovereignty and threatened mass displacement peaked after the passage of constitutional reforms for Special Development Regions (or RED, by their Spanish initials) in 2011. Resistance from community-based organizations like the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH) and the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), as well as the work done by Honduran lawyers and journalists helped lead to a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that the RED reforms were unconstitutional.

The Honduran Congress, under the leadership of Juan Orlando Hernández, the current president of Honduras, un-seated the four magistrates who had voted against the REDs in an overnight, irregular proceeding. The maneuver was deemed by some a “technical coup” — one that allowed legislators to go back to the drawing board and pass a new ZEDE Law in 2013. However, the earlier court ruling had already stopped a few initial city-ventures in their tracks and cast doubt on the feasibility of the project.

Additionally, constant governance crises have characterized the Juan Orlando Hernández administration since it came to office in 2014. In 2015, Hernández faced a national pro-democracy movement that called for his removal following revelations of embezzlement and fraud in the Honduran National Social Security Institute. In 2017, following elections mired by credible reports of fraud,  Hernández imposed a months-long curfew and suspension of constitutional rights in order to quell protests. Protests throughout the country were violently repressed by state security forces, who  killed over thirty people in the weeks before Hernández was sworn in. Since then, his administration – which has received strong backing from the U.S. government – has been further marred by corruption investigations as well as allegations of direct links to drug trafficking and organized crime. Hernández’s own brother, Antonio “Tony” Hernández was found guilty of illegal cocaine trafficking in a Manhattan Federal court in 2019. These numerous controversies, as well as the dysfunction and criminality undergirding them, have made it difficult for the Honduran government to secure large-scale investment for ZEDEs.

Given all of this, even ZEDE advocate Mark Lutter of the Charter City Institute based in Washington DC was surprised to see the first ZEDE publicly launched in May of this year. The Próspera ZEDE, a 58-acre land purchase located in Crawfish Rock on the Caribbean island of Roatán, had been in the works behind the scenes since 2017. It was founded with investment from NeWay Capital and support from former German mining executive Titus Gebel, founder of the Free Private Cities Foundation, among others. The same group hopes to develop a constellation of ZEDEs in La Ceiba, Puerto Cortés, Cuyamel, and Amapala, Honduras. A second ZEDE called “Ciudad Morázan” launched in Choloma, Cortés just months after Próspera.

Today we see both renewed interest in, and opposition to, the ZEDE project. Despite restrictions put in place for Covid-19 prevention, Hondurans in Crawfish Rock have come out to confront NeWay investors in their own community. The issue has received major coverage on national news networks, which have hosted debates on the issue of sovereignty and privatization. In an unprecedented move, the National Lawyers Association of Honduras held a press conference on October 13, adopting an official position that the ZEDE law is unconstitutional and calling for it to be overturned legislatively.

On October 19th, the Bay Islands of Honduras made a similarly unequivocal statement of opposition to the ZEDE. Despite generally being friendly to foreign investment, the Roatán Municipal government signed a declaration alongside the Mayors of Santos Guardiola, Utila, and Guanaja, the Bay Islands Chamber of Tourism, and the Bay Islands Chamber of Commerce. The declaration demands that Congress carry out a popular referendum on ZEDE development in the Department of the Bay Islands in accordance with the right to prior consultation guaranteed under Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which Honduras has ratified. It calls for an investigation into the approval of the Próspera ZEDE, and states: “We are energetically opposed to the installation of ZEDE projects inside our territory and to the government expropriating ancestral lands through the ZEDE Law to be handed over to foreigners for their benefit and profit.” The Federation of Patronatos (local governing councils) of the Bay Islands, the Islander Alliance for Social Justice, and the Native Bay Islanders Professional Labor Association signed a similar statement in August. These and other local organizations have formed the Coordinating Board for Territorial Defense of the Bay Islands in order to challenge ZEDE development. 

In Amapala, a municipality in the southern department of Valle (where the government has been planning ZEDE development with the help of the South Korean aid agency KOICA since 2014), local organizations have organized a new round of demonstrations at the doors of the municipal government. As a result, the mayor, Alberto Cruz, recently stated publicly that he is “categorically, emphatically” against a ZEDE in the municipality, noting that Amapala does not meet the high-population density requirement in the ZEDE Law to trigger a popular referendum on the matter. Cruz’s statements come years after the Association for Holistic Development in the Peninsula of Zacate Grande (ADEPZA) and other organizations in Amapala campaigned against ZEDE development, arguing that it would exacerbate a process of land dispossession that is already underway.

Around Choloma and San Pedro Sula, teachers’ groups that formed during the 2019 national strikes against education restructuring reforms – seen as a move to weaken the public education system  – have organized virtual forums to share information on the ZEDE law and its implications for Honduras. New organizations have sprung up on a national level, like Movimiento Patria (The Homeland Movement), comprised primarily of Honduran business owners and politicians. The organization formed over the Hernández administration’s mishandling of Covid-19 funds and has now opposed the ZEDE model of investment.

Will we see disaster capitalism in Honduras after Hurricanes Eta and Iota? 

In Naomi Klein’s classic The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Klein discusses the capitalization of crisis in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch. Mitch changed the course of history in Central America in 1998, but its most lasting impacts were not the destruction wrought by the hurricane itself. Domestic elites and foreign interests used the state of crisis and the need for reconstruction to pass sweeping reforms. The reforms allowed for the privatization of key trade and transportation infrastructure, the state telephone company, and other key sectors. The Honduran government overturned land reform laws and swiftly passed a pro-business mining law that expanded resource extraction throughout the country.

The ZEDEs themselves seem to follow disaster around. They were proposed in Honduras following the 2009 military coup that left the country  economically depressed, militarized,  and in the hands of concessionist right-wing leaders with ties to drug trafficking and money laundering. Since then, deteriorating conditions in Honduras and the “failed state” narrative have been used to justify the ZEDE’s outsourced governments as being better than the alternative. 

After years of stagnation, ZEDEs were once again proposed as a solution to crisis in 2018 when tens of thousands of Hondurans fled to the US-Mexico border in migrant caravans. After Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017, startup city enthusiasts and would-be investors convened in Washington DC to discuss using private cities run on blockchain technologies and cryptocurrencies to rebuild the island. They subsequently gathered in Puerto Rico to try to move forward with their city-ventures, but were met with local opposition. 

Last month, northern Honduras was ravaged by Hurricanes Eta and Iota. Both hurricanes, which hit less than two weeks apart, are among the strongest in recorded history.  The Orlando Hernández administration has blocked aid from entering ports unless it goes directly through government agencies. Many Hondurans accuse the government of having embezzled aid funds and supplies for the Covid-19 pandemic, and hope to channel hurricane relief directly to local organizations. Like in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch, however, the humanitarian crisis may be used to accelerate long-term, structural reforms. In the absence of political will and capacity to care for the needs of newly devastated communities, and with just one year left of Hernández’s second term, it is likely that ZEDEs will again be promoted as a method of reconstruction and negotiated behind closed doors. Hondurans will have to act fast in nearly impossible conditions if they want to resist them.

This week in Washington, D.C. the Organization of American States (OAS) held their 50th Regular Session of the General Assembly. In these meetings the General Assembly, the highest decision-making body of the OAS, is tasked with debating the organization’s course of action for the next year, as well as setting the standards of governance for the General Secretariat — the OAS’s central executive body. This is headed by Luis Almagro, a former Uruguayan diplomat who has been the Secretary General of the OAS since 2015. 

The session arrives on the heels of another important political event for the Americas: Bolivia’s general election, which took place almost a year after President Evo Morales was ousted in a military coup d’etat. The justification for the coup was based primarily on allegations of electoral fraud that were promoted by an OAS Electoral Observation Mission (EOM) and Secretary General Almagro. Though the Center for Economic and Policy Research and others published studies showing that there was no evidence to support the OAS fraud allegations, the organization stuck to its claims and Secretary General Almagro threw his support behind Bolivia’s de facto government, even as it engaged in violent repression of protests and persecuted leaders and supporters of Morales’s political party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). In spite of this repression, MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce swept the first round of the October 18 elections with around 55% of the vote

Given the central role of the OAS in Bolivia’s 2019 coup, and other controversial actions, such as jeopardizing the independence of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and unilaterally appointing officials to key positions, some diplomats attending this year’s General Assembly have strongly criticized Almagro’s leadership and questioned whether he should continue to head the organization.

The most scathing public indictment of Almagro’s actions has come from Mexico, whose  Subsecretary for Latin America and the Caribbean delivered a scathing indictment of the current General Secretary for his unilateral decision-making, support for harmful economic sanctions in the region, and for undermining the principles of non-intervention and self-determination in the case of Bolivia. 

In his prepared remarks to the assembly on October 20, Undersecretary Maximiliano Reyes Zúñiga asserted that Secretary Almagro’s use of the 2019 electoral observation mission in Bolivia has de-legitimized the EOM as an institution. He recommended that “Mr. Luis Almagro submit to a process of self-criticism based on his actions against the OAS Charter and the harm that he has done to Bolivia’s democracy, to determine if he still has the necessary moral authority to lead this organization.”

 

These criticisms have been accompanied by calls for Almagro to resign from regional actors such as the Grupo de Puebla

When asked about these remarks by reporters, General Secretary Almagro evaded a direct response, instead criticizing the media for not focussing on his support from other countries, and doubling down on his defense for the electoral mission’s 2019 audit, which he claimed was “irrefutable.”

Here is an English translation of Undersecretary Reyes’s full speech at the OAS General Assembly on October 21 (emphasis from original document):

Esteemed Ministers,

Esteemed representatives,

It is an honor for me to participate in this 50th regular session of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States on behalf of my country, as well as that of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico and Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard.

We meet in unusual circumstances because of the COVID-19 pandemic that has posed a great challenge to the world, and in particular to our hemisphere.

That is why Mexico participates in this event to reaffirm its multilateralist vocation. We believe that cooperation is an essential pillar of peaceful coexistence among nations and of the search for solutions to the common challenges we face.

Mexico is well acquainted with the difficulties of political dialogue in the hemisphere that have halted important progress on many issues.

In the face of these difficulties, the Fourth Transformation of public life in Mexico, led by President López Obrador, will always uphold the principles of non-intervention, self-determination of peoples, peaceful settlement of disputes, and respect, protection and promotion of human rights.

We therefore reaffirm Mexico’s historical stance against unilateral economic and financial sanctions implemented as means of pressure. The greatest victims of these are always the most in need, which makes [these sanctions] unacceptable.

Furthermore, Mexico has on several occasions expressed the desire that the peoples of Nicaragua and Venezuela will soon find a peaceful and democratic way out of the situation that these countries are experiencing, preserving at all times their legitimate right to shape their own destiny. Mexico opposes any measure that seeks to exclude a Member State of our Organization from political dialogue.

Mexico is also concerned about the recent trend of reaching beyond the technical nature of Electoral Observation Missions. We emphasize that the actions of the EOMs must be impartial in nature, limited to logistical and institutional accompaniment and that they are conducted under the principles of rationality, transparency, austerity and accountability.

Democracy is also strengthened by eliminating corruption. Mexico renews its commitment to combating this scourge by incorporating an active citizenry that is vigilant of government actions.

In terms of human rights, Mexico maintains its strong support for the rights of indigenous peoples, LGBT people and for gender equality.

Mexico also reaffirms its full support for the Inter-American System of Human Rights and stresses the importance of respecting its autonomy. My country will remain committed to strengthening the work of the Commission and the Court.

In the area of comprehensive development, we must continue to work on strengthening measures for comprehensive disaster risk management to address climate change threats.

However, in terms of cooperation, attention must be drawn to the indifference with which the OAS has behaved in this pandemic.

We note with concern the lack of concrete action by the General Secretariat during this health emergency.

Ladies and gentlemen,

My country reiterates that the OAS General Secretariat must always act within its own institutional framework and move away from making any pronouncement on behalf of membership. It is the Member States, not the General Secretariat, that determines the direction that the Organization takes.

In this regard, we note the configuration of a pattern of worrying behavior by the General Secretariat, which consists in using its administrative powers to make political decisions affecting the direction of the Organization, without prior consideration by Members.

Such decisions lack a legal basis and the necessary information that would allow us to understand their motivation and objectives. This is the case with the appointment of a special adviser on the responsibility to protect. This issue should have been consulted and discussed in a comprehensive manner within the Organization. Mexico views this appointment with great concern.

We note the same pattern in regards to the refusal of the General Secretariat to renew the mandate of the Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. We strongly reiterate that these actions undermine the autonomy and independence of the Commission.

Similarly, we see the same sort of behavior in Bolivia’s in 2019 elections, where the General Secretariat used an Electoral Observation Mission in a contentious manner to prematurely denounce alleged fraud that has never been proven to have taken place. In the elections of last Sunday in that country we saw the same electoral trend as in 2019.  

This contentious use [of the EOM] generated instability, violence and constitutional disorder in Bolivia, and fomented regional confrontation. It is not the General Secretariat’s job to qualify elections or governments. Given the aforementioned issues, Mexico recommends that Mr. Luis Almagro submit to a process of self-criticism based on his actions against the OAS Charter and the harm that he has done to Bolivia’s democracy, to determine if he still has the necessary moral authority to lead this organization.

My country denounces the Secretary General’s desire to intervene in the internal affairs of our States and to cause harm to our democracies. What happened in Bolivia must never be repeated.

Yesterday marked a year since the Bolivian elections in which Evo Morales was the winner. One year later, the MAS party won again and Luis Arce was elected President in a peaceful and democratic election day – an example for the whole world, and very much despite you, Mr. Secretary General, and your electoral observation mission. The Bolivian people have given you a historic lesson, let’s hope that you will learn it.

As long as you continue to lead the Organization, the memory of what happened in Bolivia will always be present. You have de-legitimized the EOMs and led the Organization to clash with the current democratic reality of the region.

Mexico, in accordance with its strong multilateralist tradition and its constitutional foreign policy principles, will continue to promote dialogue and diplomacy as the best way to seek common and consensual solutions. We have done so at the helm of CELAC, and we deeply appreciate the vote of confidence of all Latin American and Caribbean countries to continue to lead it next year.

We reiterate Mexico’s call to prioritize the unity of the peoples of America.

Thank you very much.

This week in Washington, D.C. the Organization of American States (OAS) held their 50th Regular Session of the General Assembly. In these meetings the General Assembly, the highest decision-making body of the OAS, is tasked with debating the organization’s course of action for the next year, as well as setting the standards of governance for the General Secretariat — the OAS’s central executive body. This is headed by Luis Almagro, a former Uruguayan diplomat who has been the Secretary General of the OAS since 2015. 

The session arrives on the heels of another important political event for the Americas: Bolivia’s general election, which took place almost a year after President Evo Morales was ousted in a military coup d’etat. The justification for the coup was based primarily on allegations of electoral fraud that were promoted by an OAS Electoral Observation Mission (EOM) and Secretary General Almagro. Though the Center for Economic and Policy Research and others published studies showing that there was no evidence to support the OAS fraud allegations, the organization stuck to its claims and Secretary General Almagro threw his support behind Bolivia’s de facto government, even as it engaged in violent repression of protests and persecuted leaders and supporters of Morales’s political party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). In spite of this repression, MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce swept the first round of the October 18 elections with around 55% of the vote

Given the central role of the OAS in Bolivia’s 2019 coup, and other controversial actions, such as jeopardizing the independence of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and unilaterally appointing officials to key positions, some diplomats attending this year’s General Assembly have strongly criticized Almagro’s leadership and questioned whether he should continue to head the organization.

The most scathing public indictment of Almagro’s actions has come from Mexico, whose  Subsecretary for Latin America and the Caribbean delivered a scathing indictment of the current General Secretary for his unilateral decision-making, support for harmful economic sanctions in the region, and for undermining the principles of non-intervention and self-determination in the case of Bolivia. 

In his prepared remarks to the assembly on October 20, Undersecretary Maximiliano Reyes Zúñiga asserted that Secretary Almagro’s use of the 2019 electoral observation mission in Bolivia has de-legitimized the EOM as an institution. He recommended that “Mr. Luis Almagro submit to a process of self-criticism based on his actions against the OAS Charter and the harm that he has done to Bolivia’s democracy, to determine if he still has the necessary moral authority to lead this organization.”

 

These criticisms have been accompanied by calls for Almagro to resign from regional actors such as the Grupo de Puebla

When asked about these remarks by reporters, General Secretary Almagro evaded a direct response, instead criticizing the media for not focussing on his support from other countries, and doubling down on his defense for the electoral mission’s 2019 audit, which he claimed was “irrefutable.”

Here is an English translation of Undersecretary Reyes’s full speech at the OAS General Assembly on October 21 (emphasis from original document):

Esteemed Ministers,

Esteemed representatives,

It is an honor for me to participate in this 50th regular session of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States on behalf of my country, as well as that of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico and Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard.

We meet in unusual circumstances because of the COVID-19 pandemic that has posed a great challenge to the world, and in particular to our hemisphere.

That is why Mexico participates in this event to reaffirm its multilateralist vocation. We believe that cooperation is an essential pillar of peaceful coexistence among nations and of the search for solutions to the common challenges we face.

Mexico is well acquainted with the difficulties of political dialogue in the hemisphere that have halted important progress on many issues.

In the face of these difficulties, the Fourth Transformation of public life in Mexico, led by President López Obrador, will always uphold the principles of non-intervention, self-determination of peoples, peaceful settlement of disputes, and respect, protection and promotion of human rights.

We therefore reaffirm Mexico’s historical stance against unilateral economic and financial sanctions implemented as means of pressure. The greatest victims of these are always the most in need, which makes [these sanctions] unacceptable.

Furthermore, Mexico has on several occasions expressed the desire that the peoples of Nicaragua and Venezuela will soon find a peaceful and democratic way out of the situation that these countries are experiencing, preserving at all times their legitimate right to shape their own destiny. Mexico opposes any measure that seeks to exclude a Member State of our Organization from political dialogue.

Mexico is also concerned about the recent trend of reaching beyond the technical nature of Electoral Observation Missions. We emphasize that the actions of the EOMs must be impartial in nature, limited to logistical and institutional accompaniment and that they are conducted under the principles of rationality, transparency, austerity and accountability.

Democracy is also strengthened by eliminating corruption. Mexico renews its commitment to combating this scourge by incorporating an active citizenry that is vigilant of government actions.

In terms of human rights, Mexico maintains its strong support for the rights of indigenous peoples, LGBT people and for gender equality.

Mexico also reaffirms its full support for the Inter-American System of Human Rights and stresses the importance of respecting its autonomy. My country will remain committed to strengthening the work of the Commission and the Court.

In the area of comprehensive development, we must continue to work on strengthening measures for comprehensive disaster risk management to address climate change threats.

However, in terms of cooperation, attention must be drawn to the indifference with which the OAS has behaved in this pandemic.

We note with concern the lack of concrete action by the General Secretariat during this health emergency.

Ladies and gentlemen,

My country reiterates that the OAS General Secretariat must always act within its own institutional framework and move away from making any pronouncement on behalf of membership. It is the Member States, not the General Secretariat, that determines the direction that the Organization takes.

In this regard, we note the configuration of a pattern of worrying behavior by the General Secretariat, which consists in using its administrative powers to make political decisions affecting the direction of the Organization, without prior consideration by Members.

Such decisions lack a legal basis and the necessary information that would allow us to understand their motivation and objectives. This is the case with the appointment of a special adviser on the responsibility to protect. This issue should have been consulted and discussed in a comprehensive manner within the Organization. Mexico views this appointment with great concern.

We note the same pattern in regards to the refusal of the General Secretariat to renew the mandate of the Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. We strongly reiterate that these actions undermine the autonomy and independence of the Commission.

Similarly, we see the same sort of behavior in Bolivia’s in 2019 elections, where the General Secretariat used an Electoral Observation Mission in a contentious manner to prematurely denounce alleged fraud that has never been proven to have taken place. In the elections of last Sunday in that country we saw the same electoral trend as in 2019.  

This contentious use [of the EOM] generated instability, violence and constitutional disorder in Bolivia, and fomented regional confrontation. It is not the General Secretariat’s job to qualify elections or governments. Given the aforementioned issues, Mexico recommends that Mr. Luis Almagro submit to a process of self-criticism based on his actions against the OAS Charter and the harm that he has done to Bolivia’s democracy, to determine if he still has the necessary moral authority to lead this organization.

My country denounces the Secretary General’s desire to intervene in the internal affairs of our States and to cause harm to our democracies. What happened in Bolivia must never be repeated.

Yesterday marked a year since the Bolivian elections in which Evo Morales was the winner. One year later, the MAS party won again and Luis Arce was elected President in a peaceful and democratic election day – an example for the whole world, and very much despite you, Mr. Secretary General, and your electoral observation mission. The Bolivian people have given you a historic lesson, let’s hope that you will learn it.

As long as you continue to lead the Organization, the memory of what happened in Bolivia will always be present. You have de-legitimized the EOMs and led the Organization to clash with the current democratic reality of the region.

Mexico, in accordance with its strong multilateralist tradition and its constitutional foreign policy principles, will continue to promote dialogue and diplomacy as the best way to seek common and consensual solutions. We have done so at the helm of CELAC, and we deeply appreciate the vote of confidence of all Latin American and Caribbean countries to continue to lead it next year.

We reiterate Mexico’s call to prioritize the unity of the peoples of America.

Thank you very much.

In English

El MÁS recibió más votos en 2020 en casi todos los 86 recintos sospechosos según la OEA en 2019

El domingo 20 de octubre, los bolivianos acudieron a las urnas y, por abrumadora mayoría, eligieron como presidente a Luis Arce del partido MAS. Los conteos rápidos privados publicados la noche de la votación mostraron que Arce recibió más del 50% de los votos y tenía una ventaja de más de 20 puntos porcentuales por encima del candidato en el segundo lugar, Carlos Mesa. Hasta el miércoles por la mañana, un poco más del 88% de los votos se había contabilizado en el sistema de resultados oficiales, y la ventaja de Arce ha ido aumentando. El porcentaje de votos del candidato del MAS es, al momento de redactar este artículo, del 54,5 en comparación con el 29,3 para Mesa. A medida que se cuenten los votos finales, es probable que la proporción de votos de Arce aumente aún más.

En estos momentos, la victoria de Arce es incuestionable. La elección se produjo casi exactamente un año después de las elecciones de octubre de 2019, que fueron seguidas por protestas violentas y la destitución del entonces presidente Evo Morales, quien renunció bajo presión militar. Los resultados oficiales de esa votación mostraron que Morales y el partido MAS ganaron con una ventaja de 10,56 puntos porcentuales sobre Mesa, por encima del margen de victoria de 10 puntos necesario para que Morales venciera en las elecciones sin tener que presentarse a una segunda vuelta. Sin embargo, la Organización de los Estados Americanos (OEA) sostuvo que hubo una supuesta manipulación generalizada de los resultados, alimentando una narrativa de fraude electoral que sirvió de pretexto para el golpe de Estado del 10 de noviembre de 2019.

Con la victoria de Arce en 2020 prácticamente confirmada, ¿qué nos dicen los resultados de 2020 sobre las acusaciones de fraude de la OEA en los comicios del año pasado?

Las denuncias iniciales de la OEA que señalaban un fraude se centraron en un supuesto cambio “drástico” e “inexplicable” en la tendencia del voto, que presuntamente tuvo lugar después de que el sistema de resultados preliminares, o TREP, fuera suspendido por casi 24 horas. En el tiempo transcurrido desde entonces, múltiples análisis estadísticos —del CEPR (comenzando el día después de las acusaciones de la OEA), y de académicos del MIT, de Tulane, de la Universidad de Pensilvania y de otros lugares— han demostrado que el análisis estadístico de la OEA es profundamente defectuoso. De hecho, no hubo ningún cambio “inexplicable” en la tendencia del voto.

La OEA se ha negado a responder tanto a estos estudios como a las preguntas sobre su análisis estadístico por parte de miembros del Congreso de Estados Unidos. En su lugar, la OEA ha señalado otras supuestas irregularidades identificadas en su auditoría. La organización terminó que su análisis estadístico era solo informativo, pero que la evidencia real estaba en una auditoría que la OEA realizó después de las elecciones.

En esa auditoría, la única evidencia que pretendió mostrar un impacto real en los resultados de las elecciones estuvo en 226 actas de 86 centros de votación en todo el país. La OEA alegó que las actas fueron manipuladas. Señaló que, si se eliminaban los votos para Morales de todas esas 226 actas, desaparecería la ventaja que le dio la victoria en primera vuelta por haber superado el umbral de 10 puntos porcentuales. Es decir, esas 226 actas sirvieron como supuesta prueba de que Morales había hecho trampa para ganar en la primera vuelta.

Extractos del informe de auditoría de la OEA.

En marzo de 2020, el CEPR publicó un informe de 82 páginas detallando cómo el resto de las acusaciones de la OEA eran tan defectuosas como el análisis estadístico que produjo los cimientos de la narrativa de fraude que llevó a la destitución forzada de Morales. Examinamos esas 226 actas, mostrando las fallas en el análisis de la OEA y señalando que los resultados en esos centros de votación coincidían estrechamente con los resultados de elecciones anteriores. En realidad, no había nada sorprendente en que al MAS le fuera extremadamente bien en esas áreas. Además, notamos que, si bien los funcionarios de la OEA habían mencionado públicamente en repetidas ocasiones la existencia de actas falsificadas, los auditores no habían proporcionado evidencia para respaldar esa acusación.

Ahora ya con resultados desagregados de las elecciones de este domingo, podemos ver que los resultados en los centros donde la OEA supuestamente identificó actas adulteradas siguen los mismos patrones que en las elecciones de 2019. A continuación, la tabla 1 presenta los resultados de 2020 (con el 88% del total de votos contabilizados) en los 86 centros de votación donde la OEA alegó que las actas de escrutinio habían sido manipuladas el año pasado.

Tabla 1

Tenemos datos parciales para al menos 81 de los 86 centros de votación y, en todos menos 9, el porcentaje de votos para el MAS ha aumentado en comparación con los comicios de 2019.

En 2019, la OEA y otros observadores parecían escandalizados por el hecho de que, en muchas áreas rurales, Morales había recibido más del 90% de los votos y, en algunos casos, incluso el 100% de los votos. Y afirmaron que esto seguramente bastaba como prueba del fraude. Pero los resultados de 2020 que tenemos hasta el momento desacreditan aún más las afirmaciones infundadas de la OEA, que sirvieron de justificación para un golpe de Estado y para la represión que vino detrás. Hasta el día de hoy, exfuncionarios electorales permanecen bajo arresto domiciliario, siendo la auditoría de la OEA el único sustento de su detención.

Como señalamos en nuestro informe de marzo, las comunidades a las que pertenecen esas 226 actas y que fueron sujeto del análisis de la OEA son, en la mayoría de los casos, predominantemente indígenas. Aunque puede resultar sorprendente ver a un candidato recibir el 100% de los votos, en realidad no lo es. La votación comunitaria —en la que una comunidad llega a un consenso sobre por quién votar— es un fenómeno ampliamente reconocido en Bolivia.

Lo que alegó la OEA es que los jurados electorales que son ciudadanos seleccionados aleatoriamente por la autoridad electoral (TSE) para servir como funcionarios electorales en cada mesa de votación no escribieron sus nombres en las actas, sino que alguien más había escrito sus nombres. Siendo claros, la OEA no alega que las 226 actas fueron llenadas por la misma persona (en ningún caso la OEA alega que una misma persona llenó más de 7 actas). Además, en solo uno de los 226 casos, la OEA señala problemas con las firmas en las actas. En lugar de fraude, la explicación más probable para esto es simplemente que un notario (cada notario supervisa alrededor de 8 mesas de votación), o algún otro funcionario con letra clara y legible, escribió los nombres y luego cada miembro del jurado firmó el acta. No queda claro, en base a la normativa electoral, que esto sea siquiera una violación de la ley electoral. De cualquier manera, los resultados de 2020 confirman además que no hubo nada fuera de lo normal en los resultados de esas 226 actas en 2019. Además, lo que la OEA identificó como irregularidades no tuvo un impacto perceptible en los resultados de las elecciones.

No podemos volver a 2019, ni borrar la violencia racista desatada en contra de la población tras el golpe. El domingo, los bolivianos demostraron su valentía y el poder de los movimientos sociales organizados para corregir el daño de 2019. Pero esa victoria no debería permitirnos olvidarnos de 2019, o del papel que jugaron los actores internacionales en el derrocamiento de un Gobierno elegido democráticamente. Esas 226 actas nunca mostraron un fraude, como afirmó la OEA. Sin embargo, sí revelan cómo la OEA privó de sus derechos a decenas de miles de indígenas bolivianos en sus descarados intentos por justificar la destitución antidemocrática de un líder electo.

Traducción de Francesca Emanuele

In English

El MÁS recibió más votos en 2020 en casi todos los 86 recintos sospechosos según la OEA en 2019

El domingo 20 de octubre, los bolivianos acudieron a las urnas y, por abrumadora mayoría, eligieron como presidente a Luis Arce del partido MAS. Los conteos rápidos privados publicados la noche de la votación mostraron que Arce recibió más del 50% de los votos y tenía una ventaja de más de 20 puntos porcentuales por encima del candidato en el segundo lugar, Carlos Mesa. Hasta el miércoles por la mañana, un poco más del 88% de los votos se había contabilizado en el sistema de resultados oficiales, y la ventaja de Arce ha ido aumentando. El porcentaje de votos del candidato del MAS es, al momento de redactar este artículo, del 54,5 en comparación con el 29,3 para Mesa. A medida que se cuenten los votos finales, es probable que la proporción de votos de Arce aumente aún más.

En estos momentos, la victoria de Arce es incuestionable. La elección se produjo casi exactamente un año después de las elecciones de octubre de 2019, que fueron seguidas por protestas violentas y la destitución del entonces presidente Evo Morales, quien renunció bajo presión militar. Los resultados oficiales de esa votación mostraron que Morales y el partido MAS ganaron con una ventaja de 10,56 puntos porcentuales sobre Mesa, por encima del margen de victoria de 10 puntos necesario para que Morales venciera en las elecciones sin tener que presentarse a una segunda vuelta. Sin embargo, la Organización de los Estados Americanos (OEA) sostuvo que hubo una supuesta manipulación generalizada de los resultados, alimentando una narrativa de fraude electoral que sirvió de pretexto para el golpe de Estado del 10 de noviembre de 2019.

Con la victoria de Arce en 2020 prácticamente confirmada, ¿qué nos dicen los resultados de 2020 sobre las acusaciones de fraude de la OEA en los comicios del año pasado?

Las denuncias iniciales de la OEA que señalaban un fraude se centraron en un supuesto cambio “drástico” e “inexplicable” en la tendencia del voto, que presuntamente tuvo lugar después de que el sistema de resultados preliminares, o TREP, fuera suspendido por casi 24 horas. En el tiempo transcurrido desde entonces, múltiples análisis estadísticos —del CEPR (comenzando el día después de las acusaciones de la OEA), y de académicos del MIT, de Tulane, de la Universidad de Pensilvania y de otros lugares— han demostrado que el análisis estadístico de la OEA es profundamente defectuoso. De hecho, no hubo ningún cambio “inexplicable” en la tendencia del voto.

La OEA se ha negado a responder tanto a estos estudios como a las preguntas sobre su análisis estadístico por parte de miembros del Congreso de Estados Unidos. En su lugar, la OEA ha señalado otras supuestas irregularidades identificadas en su auditoría. La organización terminó que su análisis estadístico era solo informativo, pero que la evidencia real estaba en una auditoría que la OEA realizó después de las elecciones.

En esa auditoría, la única evidencia que pretendió mostrar un impacto real en los resultados de las elecciones estuvo en 226 actas de 86 centros de votación en todo el país. La OEA alegó que las actas fueron manipuladas. Señaló que, si se eliminaban los votos para Morales de todas esas 226 actas, desaparecería la ventaja que le dio la victoria en primera vuelta por haber superado el umbral de 10 puntos porcentuales. Es decir, esas 226 actas sirvieron como supuesta prueba de que Morales había hecho trampa para ganar en la primera vuelta.

Extractos del informe de auditoría de la OEA.

En marzo de 2020, el CEPR publicó un informe de 82 páginas detallando cómo el resto de las acusaciones de la OEA eran tan defectuosas como el análisis estadístico que produjo los cimientos de la narrativa de fraude que llevó a la destitución forzada de Morales. Examinamos esas 226 actas, mostrando las fallas en el análisis de la OEA y señalando que los resultados en esos centros de votación coincidían estrechamente con los resultados de elecciones anteriores. En realidad, no había nada sorprendente en que al MAS le fuera extremadamente bien en esas áreas. Además, notamos que, si bien los funcionarios de la OEA habían mencionado públicamente en repetidas ocasiones la existencia de actas falsificadas, los auditores no habían proporcionado evidencia para respaldar esa acusación.

Ahora ya con resultados desagregados de las elecciones de este domingo, podemos ver que los resultados en los centros donde la OEA supuestamente identificó actas adulteradas siguen los mismos patrones que en las elecciones de 2019. A continuación, la tabla 1 presenta los resultados de 2020 (con el 88% del total de votos contabilizados) en los 86 centros de votación donde la OEA alegó que las actas de escrutinio habían sido manipuladas el año pasado.

Tabla 1

Tenemos datos parciales para al menos 81 de los 86 centros de votación y, en todos menos 9, el porcentaje de votos para el MAS ha aumentado en comparación con los comicios de 2019.

En 2019, la OEA y otros observadores parecían escandalizados por el hecho de que, en muchas áreas rurales, Morales había recibido más del 90% de los votos y, en algunos casos, incluso el 100% de los votos. Y afirmaron que esto seguramente bastaba como prueba del fraude. Pero los resultados de 2020 que tenemos hasta el momento desacreditan aún más las afirmaciones infundadas de la OEA, que sirvieron de justificación para un golpe de Estado y para la represión que vino detrás. Hasta el día de hoy, exfuncionarios electorales permanecen bajo arresto domiciliario, siendo la auditoría de la OEA el único sustento de su detención.

Como señalamos en nuestro informe de marzo, las comunidades a las que pertenecen esas 226 actas y que fueron sujeto del análisis de la OEA son, en la mayoría de los casos, predominantemente indígenas. Aunque puede resultar sorprendente ver a un candidato recibir el 100% de los votos, en realidad no lo es. La votación comunitaria —en la que una comunidad llega a un consenso sobre por quién votar— es un fenómeno ampliamente reconocido en Bolivia.

Lo que alegó la OEA es que los jurados electorales que son ciudadanos seleccionados aleatoriamente por la autoridad electoral (TSE) para servir como funcionarios electorales en cada mesa de votación no escribieron sus nombres en las actas, sino que alguien más había escrito sus nombres. Siendo claros, la OEA no alega que las 226 actas fueron llenadas por la misma persona (en ningún caso la OEA alega que una misma persona llenó más de 7 actas). Además, en solo uno de los 226 casos, la OEA señala problemas con las firmas en las actas. En lugar de fraude, la explicación más probable para esto es simplemente que un notario (cada notario supervisa alrededor de 8 mesas de votación), o algún otro funcionario con letra clara y legible, escribió los nombres y luego cada miembro del jurado firmó el acta. No queda claro, en base a la normativa electoral, que esto sea siquiera una violación de la ley electoral. De cualquier manera, los resultados de 2020 confirman además que no hubo nada fuera de lo normal en los resultados de esas 226 actas en 2019. Además, lo que la OEA identificó como irregularidades no tuvo un impacto perceptible en los resultados de las elecciones.

No podemos volver a 2019, ni borrar la violencia racista desatada en contra de la población tras el golpe. El domingo, los bolivianos demostraron su valentía y el poder de los movimientos sociales organizados para corregir el daño de 2019. Pero esa victoria no debería permitirnos olvidarnos de 2019, o del papel que jugaron los actores internacionales en el derrocamiento de un Gobierno elegido democráticamente. Esas 226 actas nunca mostraron un fraude, como afirmó la OEA. Sin embargo, sí revelan cómo la OEA privó de sus derechos a decenas de miles de indígenas bolivianos en sus descarados intentos por justificar la destitución antidemocrática de un líder electo.

Traducción de Francesca Emanuele

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En español

The MAS Received More Votes in Almost All of the OAS’s 86 Suspect Precincts in 2020 than in 2019

On Sunday, October 20, Bolivians went to the polls and overwhelmingly elected Luis Arce of the MAS party president. Private quick counts released the night of the vote showed Arce receiving more than 50 percent of the vote and holding a more than 20 percentage point lead over second place candidate Carlos Mesa. As of Wednesday morning, just over 88 percent of votes had been tallied in the official results system — and Arce’s lead is even greater. The MAS candidate’s vote share is, at the time of writing, 54.5 compared to 29.3 for Mesa. As the final votes are counted, Arce’s vote share will likely increase further.  

At this point, there can be no questioning Arce’s victory. The election came nearly exactly a year after the October 2019 elections which were followed by violent protests and the ouster of then president Evo Morales, who resigned under pressure from the military. Official results in that vote showed Morales and the MAS party winning with a 10.56 percentage point advantage over Mesa, just over the 10 point margin of victory needed for Morales to win the election outright, without having to stand in a run-off election. However, the Organization of American States (OAS) alleged widespread manipulation of the results, feeding a narrative of electoral fraud that served as a pretext for  the November 10, 2019 coup.

With Arce’s 2020 victory now all but confirmed, what do the 2020 results tell us about the OAS allegations of fraud in last year’s vote?

The OAS’s initial claims of fraud centered around a “drastic” and “inexplicable” change in the trend of the vote, which allegedly took place after the preliminary results system, or TREP, was suspended for nearly 24 hours. In the time since, myriad statistical analyses — from CEPR (beginning the day after the OAS allegations), and from academics at MIT, Tulane, University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere, have shown the OAS’s statistical analysis to be deeply flawed. In fact, there was no “inexplicable” change in the trend of the vote.

The OAS has refused to respond to these studies, or to queries about their statistical analysis from members of Congress, and has instead pointed to other alleged irregularities identified in the OAS audit. Statistical analysis is just informative, the OAS claimed, but the real evidence was in an audit that they carried out after the elections.

In that audit, the only evidence purporting to show an actual impact on the results of the elections were 226 tally sheets from 86 voting centers across the country. The OAS alleged that the tally sheets had been doctored. They noted that, if you removed the votes for Morales from all of these 226 tally sheets, his entire advantage above the 10 percentage point threshold for a first-round win disappeared. In other words, these 226 tally sheets served as supposed proof that Morales had cheated in order to win in the first round.

Excerpts from the OAS audit report. 

In March 2020, CEPR published an 82-page report detailing how the rest of the OAS allegations were just as flawed as the statistical analysis that formed the basis for the fraud narrative that led to Morales’s forced removal from office. We looked into these 226 tally sheets, showing the flaws in the OAS analysis and pointing out that the results in these voting centers closely matched results from previous elections. There was, in fact, nothing surprising about MAS performing extremely well in these areas. Further, we noted that while OAS officials had repeatedly spoken publicly about forged tally sheets, the auditors had provided no evidence to back up that allegation.

Now that there are disaggregated voting results from this Sunday’s elections, we can see that results in the centers where the OAS had allegedly identified doctored tally sheets follow the same patterns as in the 2019 elections.  Table 1, below, presents the 2020 results (with 88 percent of votes counted overall) in all 86 voting centers where the OAS alleged that tally sheets had been manipulated last year.

Table 1.
 

We have at least partial data for 81 of the 86 voting centers, and in all but 9, the MAS share of the vote has increased when compared to 2019.

In 2019, the OAS and other observers appeared scandalized by the fact that, in many rural areas, Morales had received more than 90 percent of the vote — and in some cases, even 100 percent of the vote. This, they claimed, surely sufficed as evidence of fraud. But, the 2020 results thus far further discredit the unsubstantiated claims made by the OAS, which served as justification for a coup d’etat and the repression that followed. To this day, former electoral officials remain under house arrest based on nothing more than the OAS audit. 

As we noted in the March report, the communities targeted in the OAS analysis of these 226 tally sheets are, in the majority of cases, predominantly Indigenous. Though it may come as a shock to see a candidate receive 100 percent of the votes, it shouldn’t. Community voting — in which a community comes to a consensus around who to vote for — is a widely recognized phenomenon in Bolivia.  

What the OAS alleged is that electoral jurors, the citizens selected at random by the electoral authorityTSE to serve as electoral officials at each voting table, did not print their names on the tally sheets — but that someone else had written their names. To be clear, the OAS does not allege that all 226 were filled out by the same individual; —  in no case does the OAS allege that more than 7 tally sheets were filled out by the same person. Further, in only one of the 226 cases does the OAS allege any problem at all with any signatures on the tally sheets. Rather than fraud, the most likely explanation for this is simply that a notary (each notary oversees about 8 voting tables), or some other official with clear handwriting, printed the names and then each juror signed the tally sheet. It is not clear, from the electoral regulations, that this is even a violation of the electoral law. Either way, the results from 2020 further confirm that there was nothing abnormal about the results on these 226 tally sheets in 2019. Further, what the OAS identified as irregularities had no discernable impact on the results of the election.

We can’t go back to 2019, or erase the racist violence unleashed on the population following the coup. On Sunday, Bolivians showed their courage, and the power of organized social movements, in righting the wrong of 2019. But that victory shouldn’t allow us to forget about 2019, or the role that international actors played in overthrowing a democratically elected government. Those 226 tally sheets never showed fraud, as the OAS asserted. They do, however, reveal how the OAS disenfranchised tens of thousands of Indigenous Bolivians in its galling attempts to justify the undemocratic removal of an elected leader.

 

 

En español

The MAS Received More Votes in Almost All of the OAS’s 86 Suspect Precincts in 2020 than in 2019

On Sunday, October 20, Bolivians went to the polls and overwhelmingly elected Luis Arce of the MAS party president. Private quick counts released the night of the vote showed Arce receiving more than 50 percent of the vote and holding a more than 20 percentage point lead over second place candidate Carlos Mesa. As of Wednesday morning, just over 88 percent of votes had been tallied in the official results system — and Arce’s lead is even greater. The MAS candidate’s vote share is, at the time of writing, 54.5 compared to 29.3 for Mesa. As the final votes are counted, Arce’s vote share will likely increase further.  

At this point, there can be no questioning Arce’s victory. The election came nearly exactly a year after the October 2019 elections which were followed by violent protests and the ouster of then president Evo Morales, who resigned under pressure from the military. Official results in that vote showed Morales and the MAS party winning with a 10.56 percentage point advantage over Mesa, just over the 10 point margin of victory needed for Morales to win the election outright, without having to stand in a run-off election. However, the Organization of American States (OAS) alleged widespread manipulation of the results, feeding a narrative of electoral fraud that served as a pretext for  the November 10, 2019 coup.

With Arce’s 2020 victory now all but confirmed, what do the 2020 results tell us about the OAS allegations of fraud in last year’s vote?

The OAS’s initial claims of fraud centered around a “drastic” and “inexplicable” change in the trend of the vote, which allegedly took place after the preliminary results system, or TREP, was suspended for nearly 24 hours. In the time since, myriad statistical analyses — from CEPR (beginning the day after the OAS allegations), and from academics at MIT, Tulane, University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere, have shown the OAS’s statistical analysis to be deeply flawed. In fact, there was no “inexplicable” change in the trend of the vote.

The OAS has refused to respond to these studies, or to queries about their statistical analysis from members of Congress, and has instead pointed to other alleged irregularities identified in the OAS audit. Statistical analysis is just informative, the OAS claimed, but the real evidence was in an audit that they carried out after the elections.

In that audit, the only evidence purporting to show an actual impact on the results of the elections were 226 tally sheets from 86 voting centers across the country. The OAS alleged that the tally sheets had been doctored. They noted that, if you removed the votes for Morales from all of these 226 tally sheets, his entire advantage above the 10 percentage point threshold for a first-round win disappeared. In other words, these 226 tally sheets served as supposed proof that Morales had cheated in order to win in the first round.

Excerpts from the OAS audit report. 

In March 2020, CEPR published an 82-page report detailing how the rest of the OAS allegations were just as flawed as the statistical analysis that formed the basis for the fraud narrative that led to Morales’s forced removal from office. We looked into these 226 tally sheets, showing the flaws in the OAS analysis and pointing out that the results in these voting centers closely matched results from previous elections. There was, in fact, nothing surprising about MAS performing extremely well in these areas. Further, we noted that while OAS officials had repeatedly spoken publicly about forged tally sheets, the auditors had provided no evidence to back up that allegation.

Now that there are disaggregated voting results from this Sunday’s elections, we can see that results in the centers where the OAS had allegedly identified doctored tally sheets follow the same patterns as in the 2019 elections.  Table 1, below, presents the 2020 results (with 88 percent of votes counted overall) in all 86 voting centers where the OAS alleged that tally sheets had been manipulated last year.

Table 1.
 

We have at least partial data for 81 of the 86 voting centers, and in all but 9, the MAS share of the vote has increased when compared to 2019.

In 2019, the OAS and other observers appeared scandalized by the fact that, in many rural areas, Morales had received more than 90 percent of the vote — and in some cases, even 100 percent of the vote. This, they claimed, surely sufficed as evidence of fraud. But, the 2020 results thus far further discredit the unsubstantiated claims made by the OAS, which served as justification for a coup d’etat and the repression that followed. To this day, former electoral officials remain under house arrest based on nothing more than the OAS audit. 

As we noted in the March report, the communities targeted in the OAS analysis of these 226 tally sheets are, in the majority of cases, predominantly Indigenous. Though it may come as a shock to see a candidate receive 100 percent of the votes, it shouldn’t. Community voting — in which a community comes to a consensus around who to vote for — is a widely recognized phenomenon in Bolivia.  

What the OAS alleged is that electoral jurors, the citizens selected at random by the electoral authorityTSE to serve as electoral officials at each voting table, did not print their names on the tally sheets — but that someone else had written their names. To be clear, the OAS does not allege that all 226 were filled out by the same individual; —  in no case does the OAS allege that more than 7 tally sheets were filled out by the same person. Further, in only one of the 226 cases does the OAS allege any problem at all with any signatures on the tally sheets. Rather than fraud, the most likely explanation for this is simply that a notary (each notary oversees about 8 voting tables), or some other official with clear handwriting, printed the names and then each juror signed the tally sheet. It is not clear, from the electoral regulations, that this is even a violation of the electoral law. Either way, the results from 2020 further confirm that there was nothing abnormal about the results on these 226 tally sheets in 2019. Further, what the OAS identified as irregularities had no discernable impact on the results of the election.

We can’t go back to 2019, or erase the racist violence unleashed on the population following the coup. On Sunday, Bolivians showed their courage, and the power of organized social movements, in righting the wrong of 2019. But that victory shouldn’t allow us to forget about 2019, or the role that international actors played in overthrowing a democratically elected government. Those 226 tally sheets never showed fraud, as the OAS asserted. They do, however, reveal how the OAS disenfranchised tens of thousands of Indigenous Bolivians in its galling attempts to justify the undemocratic removal of an elected leader.

 

 

In interviews recorded for a new podcast,While We were Sleeping,” host Francesca Emanuele investigates overlooked cases of state violence and the human stories behind them. Two new interviews offer useful context for the October 18 general elections just carried out in Bolivia.

In the first, Emanuele interviews Jhocelin Caspa, an Indigenous Aymara woman from Bolivia. Caspa is a witness to the Senkata Massacre, which occurred November 19, 2019. Her first-hand chronology addresses the events of the massacre that occurred just days after Bolivian president Evo Morales was forced to resign. Caspa was on a bus arriving at Senkata, in El Alto, Bolivia, when military forces stopped the vehicle, forcing everyone to get off. From 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., she fled the military through the streets of her city, running for her life. Along the way, she witnessed numerous acts of brutality perpetrated by the Bolivian military. According to the investigations of the Inter-American Commission of Human rights, the death toll was nine people, but Caspa questions this number and believes many more people were killed that day. 

“In the middle of the highway, they had lined up the caskets of all of the fallen. There were approximately eight to 10 bodies, and those were just the bodies whose family members allowed for them to be shown. There are a lot of bodies that haven’t had their public wakes because their families have not wanted to politicize their deaths and so they arrange private wakes.”

“The days after the massacre, there were people who said that their children had disappeared, that they couldn’t find their spouses, that they had been on their way to work but it seems like they got caught in the clash and they never arrived.”

Caspa endures the constant repression that her community and other predominantly Indigenous communities have experienced under the interim government of Jeanine Añez.

The second interview is with CEPR Research Associate Jake Johnston, who provides a broader perspective around the events that led to the forced resignation of Evo Morales: the unfounded allegations of electoral fraud by the Organization of American States and the geopolitical context, including the role of the United States in supporting the coup and the interim government. Johnston analyzes the changes in domestic and foreign policy that have occurred during the past 11 months in Bolivia.

“Since the coup there is this real consolidation of a far right in Bolivia that has used unelected power and it’s no surprise that the communities that have had the worst impacts from that are largely Indigenous communities or areas with high support for Evo Morales and its MAS party.”

In interviews recorded for a new podcast,While We were Sleeping,” host Francesca Emanuele investigates overlooked cases of state violence and the human stories behind them. Two new interviews offer useful context for the October 18 general elections just carried out in Bolivia.

In the first, Emanuele interviews Jhocelin Caspa, an Indigenous Aymara woman from Bolivia. Caspa is a witness to the Senkata Massacre, which occurred November 19, 2019. Her first-hand chronology addresses the events of the massacre that occurred just days after Bolivian president Evo Morales was forced to resign. Caspa was on a bus arriving at Senkata, in El Alto, Bolivia, when military forces stopped the vehicle, forcing everyone to get off. From 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., she fled the military through the streets of her city, running for her life. Along the way, she witnessed numerous acts of brutality perpetrated by the Bolivian military. According to the investigations of the Inter-American Commission of Human rights, the death toll was nine people, but Caspa questions this number and believes many more people were killed that day. 

“In the middle of the highway, they had lined up the caskets of all of the fallen. There were approximately eight to 10 bodies, and those were just the bodies whose family members allowed for them to be shown. There are a lot of bodies that haven’t had their public wakes because their families have not wanted to politicize their deaths and so they arrange private wakes.”

“The days after the massacre, there were people who said that their children had disappeared, that they couldn’t find their spouses, that they had been on their way to work but it seems like they got caught in the clash and they never arrived.”

Caspa endures the constant repression that her community and other predominantly Indigenous communities have experienced under the interim government of Jeanine Añez.

The second interview is with CEPR Research Associate Jake Johnston, who provides a broader perspective around the events that led to the forced resignation of Evo Morales: the unfounded allegations of electoral fraud by the Organization of American States and the geopolitical context, including the role of the United States in supporting the coup and the interim government. Johnston analyzes the changes in domestic and foreign policy that have occurred during the past 11 months in Bolivia.

“Since the coup there is this real consolidation of a far right in Bolivia that has used unelected power and it’s no surprise that the communities that have had the worst impacts from that are largely Indigenous communities or areas with high support for Evo Morales and its MAS party.”

UPDATE: 12:48 a.m. ET: De facto president Jeanine Anez has posted a message on Twitter congratulating Luis Arce  and David Choquehuanca on their apparent victory in today’s election.   

UPDATE 12:12 a.m. ET, October 19: Just after midnight, Unitel reported results of its quick count, conducted by Ciesmori. These are unofficial results from a private company, the official results are still processing and will take days. Nevertheless, the results of the quick count show Luis Arce of the MAS party receiving 52.4 percent of the vote and Carlos Mesa of the CC party receiving 31.5 percent of the vote. 

UPDATE 11:47 p.m. ET: Still no release of quick counts, which has generated expressions of concern from MAS leaders and some observers, such as Fernando Lugo, the former president of Paraguay and head of the COPPPAL observer delegation. Former presidential candidate (and official in the de facto government among many other titles) Jorge Quiroga expressed his own frustration with the lack of results. The official results are still progressing, albeit slowly (as anticipated). At the time of this update, 3.6 percent of tally sheets have been counted. Again, it could be many days before there is anything close to a definitive result. Meanwhile, Bret Gustafson tweets:

UPDATE 9:12 p.m. ET: Private quick counts have yet to be released (though many fakes one have been circulating). At the time of this update, just over 13,000 valid votes have been processed in the official results system (available here). Those numbers are moving quickly, however, and TSE president Salvador Romero just told the press that the processing will pick up pace after 9:30 p.m.

Most of the earliest votes counted are from abroad, but the first domestic tally sheets have begun appearing in the system. In the 2019 election there were more than 33,000 valid votes counted in Argentina – with MAS obtaining 75.9 percent and CC 14.3 percent. Just a small fraction of that has been processed tonight (almost 1,900 so far), but the early returns are looking similar. On the 15 tally sheets processed at the time of the update, MAS obtained 79.4 percent and CC 14.6 percent. It is, however, far too early to read too much into any results. 

UPDATE 8:40 p.m. ET: There are reports of an increased security presence outside the MAS campaign office in Sopocachi. Local press reported that some in the neighborhood began banging pots and pans in opposition to MAS candidate, Luis Arce. Ana Vanessa Herrero of the Washington Post tweets:

UPDATE 6:58 p.m.: An observer in Santa Cruz reported at 6:02 p.m.: “In Barrio 4 de Noviembre, we noted an almost complete absence of MAS delegates at the tables … We just saw a vote counter leave his hand paused on the tally sheet and not record a MAS vote, but a person watching spoke up and the vote was recorded.”

UPDATE 6:46 p.m. ET: An observer reported at 5:56 p.m.: “In Santa Rosita, there was a table with one too many votes and a long debate on what to do. In the end they decided not to annul the vote, but to remove one at random and send the acta to the TED with an explanation of what they had decided. No MAS delegates present. I did not stay there for the count.”

UPDATE 6:07 p.m. ET: The official results system is now live here. Vote totals will be posted as each tally sheet is processed in department electoral tribunals across the country. In general, tally sheets from urban areas will arrive earlier. Full results will take days, not hours.

UPDATE 5:49 p.m. ET: Bolivia Verifica notes that information circulating about pre-marked ballots for the MAS in Santa Cruz is false.

UPDATE 5:34 p.m. ET: Ombudsperson Nadia Cruz released data from her office’s electoral accompaniment work throughout the day. The data come from 624 voting centers in 43 municipalities. Despite long lines and disorganization, Cruz noted the overall calm atmosphere of election day. The analysis showed there was no police or military presence in just 3.4 percent of voting centers visited; 13.6 percent did not have an informational point; 11.6 percent did not have a list of eligible voters posted; 4.7 percent did not have an electoral notary present. The full note is available here.

UPDATE 5:16 p.m. ET: Observers on the ground are relaying anecdotal reports that MAS delegates are absent from a number of voting centers. In Santa Cruz, one observer notes “the fear of being identified with MAS in some neighborhoods is strong” after visiting a voting center without any MAS delegate present. Voting has now officially come to a close. 

UPDATE 4:48 p.m. ET: Juan Carlos Núñez, the director of Fundacion Jubileo, which is planning to release it’s own unofficial quick count this evening, reports difficulties in taking photos of tally sheets especially in rural areas. Notes confusion after the TSE’s decision not to use the DIREPRE preliminary results system. 

Voting in Bolivia will be coming to a close shortly and the all-important counting process will begin. The TSE noted that voting centers with lines will remain open. Tally sheets are produced at each voting table at the conclusion of the count, copies are provided to party delegates as well as the notary present. There is no problem with taking photos of tally sheets. 

UPDATE 4:20 p.m. ET: As polling centers abroad close, a number of fake images of vote total have circulated on social networks, Bolivia Verifica notes. A reminder that the TSE has scrapped the DIREPRE preliminary results system. Official results will begin being processed this evening, but expectations are that it will take at least a couple of days until all votes are counted. 

UPDATE 3:58 p.m. ET: Thomas Becker, Supervisor of the University Network for Human Rights, Tweeted from Senkata, site of an infamous post-coup massacre in November:

UPDATE 3:48 p.m.: An observer reports from the Bella Vista center in La Paz: “Two people (one a senior citizen) reported they had been purged from voting list. They complained bitterly, since they voted in this place last year. They are very distressed because since voting is mandatory they need proof that they voted to carry out basic bank transactions.” 

Code Pink observer Leonardo Flores Tweeted “So far, I’ve seen two people turned away from voting centers, as they had apparently been disqualified. Both were senior women, one indigenous.” (See his thread on this here.)

UPDATE 3:31 p.m.: Ombudsperson Nadia Cruz told the press that there were some 200 individuals deployed across the country to monitor the human rights situation in the context of today’s elections. Cruz also said she had reported last night’s mobilization of the military to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. Cruz held a press conference earlier today, available here.

UPDATE 2:35 p.m.: The Progressive International’s David Adler recorded an update on its team’s observations at eight voting centers so far today:

UPDATE 2:23 p.m.: An observer in Santa Cruz reported at 1:39 p.m.: “Just observed vote by candidate Brenda Segovia [was detained last week, and her campaign office was attacked]. There were people in white laying in wait for her who dispersed when I came in.” He writes, “They were inside and went out when I came in. I waited from inside and they yelled at her as she approached, but only from a distance.”

UPDATE 2:04 p.m. ET: TSE head Salvador Romero announced that the counting of votes from precincts abroad will begin at 5:00 p.m. ET, with counting of votes from departmental precincts to start at 6:00 p.m. ET.

UPDATE 1:40 p.m. ET: The TSE says that voting has now ended in Spain, and presumably elsewhere in Europe. Voting is also over in Asia, where the day’s first votes were cast.

In Bolivian elections, eligible voters living abroad must vote on election day.

UPDATE 1:28 p.m. ET: Long lines are being reported by journalists and observers at some locations in La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Potosí, Tarija, and elsewhere. El Deber reports that TSE president Salvador Romero has said that people who were unable to vote in the morning, due to long lines, will be able to vote in the afternoon. As El Deber reports, voter cards indicate whether voters should vote in the morning or the afternoon, but Romero says this is only a recommendation.

UPDATE 12:50 p.m. ET: An observer in Santa Cruz reports a “Military presence outside voting place in Plan 3000.” On Twitter, La Razon noted the presence of armed members of the military in various voting centers in La Paz:

UPDATE 12:29 p.m. ET: An observer on the ground met earlier with the Asociación Pro Derechos Bolivianos. The rights group expressed three main concerns at the moment: 1) general confusion, e.g., voting places being changed; 2) lack of organization, which they attribute to TSE; 3) issues of security, as nothing is being done about threats coming from shock or paramilitary groups.

UPDATE 12:15 p.m. ET: An observer in Santa Cruz reported at 11:57 a.m.: “Military presence outside voting place in Plan 3000. Inside delegates are wearing armbands, not caps, including Creemos.” He reports he had previously been told that “the delegates should be wearing armbands, not caps, at the polling place, but should not vote with their armbands on.”

UPDATE 11:35 a.m. ET: Los Tiempos reports that leading conservative candidate Carlos Mesa is urging calm and patience. “We are going to act with great prudence, knowing that any declaration can generate unnecessary conflicts,” he told the media at the voting center where he cast his ballot. These sentiments echo a statement from his CC party regarding the TSE’s announcement last night that the preliminary count would be scrapped: “it is not ideal, but we understand it, we are going to be patient and we ask the population to be the same.”

UPDATE 11:05 a.m. ET: An observer in Santa Cruz reported long lines at the Colegio San Martín in the 4 de Noviembre neighborhood at 10:26 a.m., where there are 33 voting tables. “Only police at the door but Creemos delegates are wearing party caps at the tables, and the MAS is objecting.” Media outlets have reported long lines at many polling centers this morning.

UPDATE 10:37 a.m. ET: Just before 10:00 a.m. ET, journalist Ollie Vargas Tweeted from Miraflores in La Paz:

UPDATE 10:28 a.m. ET: Observer David Adler, of the Progressive International observers’ delegation, Tweeted a half hour ago from Ciudad Satélite in El Alto:

UPDATE 9:24 a.m. ET: Voting began abroad last night. In Japan and China, the vote has already come to a close — though there were only limited numbers of registered voters. In Barcelona, Spain (the country is home to one of the largest Bolivian populations) El Deber this morning reported a delay in opening and that some were unable to vote. There had been concerns in recent days that some countries had yet to provide authorization for the opening of voting centers. In Chile, home to more than 32,000 registered Bolivian voters, voting is only due to take place in Santiago as much of the rest of Chile remains under strict coronavirus lockdown. Some 28,000 Bolivians in Chile reside outside of Santiago. There will be no vote in Panama today.

UPDATE 9:18 a.m. ET: Last night, the president of the TSE, Salvador Romero, announced that, in order to avoid confusion and focus on the official results, there would not be a preliminary results system as in last year’s election. The surprise announcement came after CEPR expressed concern earlier in the week about changes made to the preliminary results system, known as DIREPRE (concerns that were echoed by US Senator Ed Markey, among others).

The TSE had planned to only release partially disaggregated data with the preliminary results, which would have made it difficult to determine how representative those initial results were. In the 2019 vote, initial results provided through the preliminary results system (then known as TREP), appeared to show the election headed toward a second round. However, as additional votes came in, the MAS party continued to extend its advantage – eventually securing more than a 10 percentage point lead in the official results.

There was a concern this year that parties would again seize on those partial and non-representative results to claim a definitive result before all votes were actually counted. Now, without preliminary results, the country will have to wait for the much slower, but more thorough, official results (which are processed through the Computo system). The decision to scrap the DIREPRE received support from many international observer groups, including the OAS, Carter Center, and UN. The parties of the three leading candidates all released statements last night following the announcement, expressing various levels of concern over the decision.

It is interesting to note that allegations of electoral fraud in last year’s vote focused predominantly on the non-binding preliminary results system. In the OAS’s audit of the election, the vast majority of findings related to the TREP. In March, CEPR published an 82-page report detailing myriad errors in the OAS’s audit. One critique was that the OAS focused on a legally non-binding preliminary vote count. That the OAS would now ratify the decision to stop the preliminary system all together is yet another indication that allegations of fraud in last year’s vote were unsubstantiated.

While the decision to stop the DIREPRE may help avoid confusion, the lack of a preliminary results system is an overall blow to electoral transparency. In 2019, the TSE released detailed results data in downloadable Excel documents as the preliminary system tallied votes and also released photos of each tally sheet. Having two records of the results, processed in distinct manners (as is the case with the preliminary system and the Computo) can serve as an important check against potential fraud as the results from the two systems can be compared against one another.

While there will be no preliminary results announced by the TSE today, a number of exit polls are expected this evening. Given the problems of sample bias and the wide margin for error in these polls, it is vital that all actors, especially international observer missions, avoid reading too much into these early snapshots and wait for all the votes to be counted. It is also important to keep in mind that votes processed through the official Computo system are physically transported from voting centers to department electoral offices for processing. The first votes to be processed will therefore most likely be from more urban areas and will not be representative of the overall results. In 2019, the MAS party consistently increased its overall vote share as the official tally progressed. 

UPDATE 9:09 a.m. ET: Election observers were alarmed to see a large presence of combined military and police forces in the streets last night in La Paz, Cochabamba, and elsewhere — an unusual occurrence for a Bolivian election. The Cochabamba-based Andean Information Network noted on Twitter: “Bolivia’s electoral law states that the National Electoral Court commands the security forces on election day (Art. 148). Forces must be confined to their bases until voting ends. (Art. 149). Añez/Murillo’s militarization of the streets is a clear violation of Bolivian law.”

Áñez says the presence of security forces in the streets will ensure that the elections are “transparent, free, and without pressure.”

_______________________________

Bolivians go to the polls today, Sunday, October 18, in the first general elections since the last democratically elected president, Evo Morales, was forced out in a military coup last November, two months before his term had ended and despite election results showing he had won another term in a first-round election victory. Today’s elections had been postponed twice: first from May to September, and then from September to October. While Jeanine Áñez, whose party had received just 4 percent of the vote last year, had taken office vowing to be a caretaker president until new elections were organized, her government enacted significant policy reforms and Áñez herself was running as a presidential candidate until she dropped out in mid-September.

The leading candidates in these elections are former economy minister Luis Arce of Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party; and Carlos Mesa of Comunidad Ciudadana (CC), a conservative former president who ran second to Morales in last year’s elections. The only other candidate anticipated to receive more than 3 percent of the vote is Fernando Camacho, a businessman and right-wing activist from Santa Cruz. A dispersed field of candidates has narrowed in recent weeks as pressure built to consolidate behind Mesa as the only option in defeating the MAS.

The Organization of American States (OAS) is being tasked with again determining the legitimacy of the electoral process and results, despite its role in arbitrarily delegitimizing the results of last year’s elections and paving the way for the coup that followed. The OAS is joined by delegations of election monitors from the European Union, the Carter Center, the Grupo de Puebla, the Progressive International, Parlasur, COPPAL, Code Pink, academics with expertise on Bolivia and Latin America, and others.

Human rights leaders in Argentina, including Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, have filed a complaint against Almagro and the OAS Electoral Observer Mission before the UN’s Office of the High Commission on Human Rights. This year’s OAS observation mission is led by the same individual that led last year’s.

This time, the OAS is calling on everyone to respect the results of the election as reported. This despite Almagro raising the possibility of another MAS “fraud” after meeting with de facto interior minister Arturo Murillo in Washington DC last month. The OAS — and other international entities — however, have said little about the worrying pre-election atmosphere.

For example, in an incident seen by many as political persecution, MAS legislative candidate Brenda Segovia was arrested in Santa Cruz on Monday, October 12, following a far-right group attack on a MAS office in her neighborhood. The de facto authorities have also slapped various MAS leaders, among them candidate Luis Arce, with charges that include “sedition,” “terrorism” and “corruption” that are seen by many as a form of political persecution and harassment. Human Rights Watch has examined other cases of charges against former Morales officials that “appear to be politically motivated.”

De facto government officials, in particular Interior Minister Arturo Murillo, have denounced the MAS party and stoked fear in deeply concerning ways that call into question the fairness of the electoral process under its control. On Friday, October 16, the Minister of Justice accused the MAS of planning to “kill people” if it loses the elections.

They have also singled out some independent international election observers, referring to them as “agitators,” and warning they could be jailed or “put on a plane.” Members of the Code Pink delegation were stalked en route to Bolivia, with photos of them posted online along with incendiary messages describing them as “terrorists.” On October 16, state security detained a member of an officially accredited observer delegation from the Argentine congress when they arrived in La Paz. 

Partly in response to the threats, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “Everyone should be able to exercise the right to vote in peace, without intimidation or violence. These elections represent an opportunity to really move forward on social and economic fronts, and to defuse the extreme polarization that has been plaguing Bolivia over the past few years,” and added “It is essential that all sides avoid further acts of violence that could spark a confrontation.” 

Once voting is finished, it will likely be days before the results are known. This is because in a surprise last-minute announcement, Bolivia’s electoral authorities, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE), said that there will not be a preliminary count on election night. This follows alarms raised by CEPR and others after the UNDP office in La Paz stated: “Disaggregation level of the results will be at Polling precinct level (recinto electoral) and most probably there will not be a excel [sic] sheet for public download.” As votes were processed in the 2019 election, analysts were able to download Excel sheets of disaggregated results data. Analysis of this data allowed them to show that there was no statistical basis for the Organization of American States’ claims questioning the validity of the results showing that President Evo Morales had won a first-round victory.

The official results will begin being processed on election day but are not expected to be finalized until at least Wednesday. Considering the uncertainty around what is likely to happen today — i.e., whether a candidate, such as Arce, will win a first-round victory, as many polls suggest is possible, or whether the elections will head to a runoff on November 29 — it remains to be seen whether the decision to scrap the quick count will defuse tensions, or contribute to them.

UPDATE: 12:48 a.m. ET: De facto president Jeanine Anez has posted a message on Twitter congratulating Luis Arce  and David Choquehuanca on their apparent victory in today’s election.   

UPDATE 12:12 a.m. ET, October 19: Just after midnight, Unitel reported results of its quick count, conducted by Ciesmori. These are unofficial results from a private company, the official results are still processing and will take days. Nevertheless, the results of the quick count show Luis Arce of the MAS party receiving 52.4 percent of the vote and Carlos Mesa of the CC party receiving 31.5 percent of the vote. 

UPDATE 11:47 p.m. ET: Still no release of quick counts, which has generated expressions of concern from MAS leaders and some observers, such as Fernando Lugo, the former president of Paraguay and head of the COPPPAL observer delegation. Former presidential candidate (and official in the de facto government among many other titles) Jorge Quiroga expressed his own frustration with the lack of results. The official results are still progressing, albeit slowly (as anticipated). At the time of this update, 3.6 percent of tally sheets have been counted. Again, it could be many days before there is anything close to a definitive result. Meanwhile, Bret Gustafson tweets:

UPDATE 9:12 p.m. ET: Private quick counts have yet to be released (though many fakes one have been circulating). At the time of this update, just over 13,000 valid votes have been processed in the official results system (available here). Those numbers are moving quickly, however, and TSE president Salvador Romero just told the press that the processing will pick up pace after 9:30 p.m.

Most of the earliest votes counted are from abroad, but the first domestic tally sheets have begun appearing in the system. In the 2019 election there were more than 33,000 valid votes counted in Argentina – with MAS obtaining 75.9 percent and CC 14.3 percent. Just a small fraction of that has been processed tonight (almost 1,900 so far), but the early returns are looking similar. On the 15 tally sheets processed at the time of the update, MAS obtained 79.4 percent and CC 14.6 percent. It is, however, far too early to read too much into any results. 

UPDATE 8:40 p.m. ET: There are reports of an increased security presence outside the MAS campaign office in Sopocachi. Local press reported that some in the neighborhood began banging pots and pans in opposition to MAS candidate, Luis Arce. Ana Vanessa Herrero of the Washington Post tweets:

UPDATE 6:58 p.m.: An observer in Santa Cruz reported at 6:02 p.m.: “In Barrio 4 de Noviembre, we noted an almost complete absence of MAS delegates at the tables … We just saw a vote counter leave his hand paused on the tally sheet and not record a MAS vote, but a person watching spoke up and the vote was recorded.”

UPDATE 6:46 p.m. ET: An observer reported at 5:56 p.m.: “In Santa Rosita, there was a table with one too many votes and a long debate on what to do. In the end they decided not to annul the vote, but to remove one at random and send the acta to the TED with an explanation of what they had decided. No MAS delegates present. I did not stay there for the count.”

UPDATE 6:07 p.m. ET: The official results system is now live here. Vote totals will be posted as each tally sheet is processed in department electoral tribunals across the country. In general, tally sheets from urban areas will arrive earlier. Full results will take days, not hours.

UPDATE 5:49 p.m. ET: Bolivia Verifica notes that information circulating about pre-marked ballots for the MAS in Santa Cruz is false.

UPDATE 5:34 p.m. ET: Ombudsperson Nadia Cruz released data from her office’s electoral accompaniment work throughout the day. The data come from 624 voting centers in 43 municipalities. Despite long lines and disorganization, Cruz noted the overall calm atmosphere of election day. The analysis showed there was no police or military presence in just 3.4 percent of voting centers visited; 13.6 percent did not have an informational point; 11.6 percent did not have a list of eligible voters posted; 4.7 percent did not have an electoral notary present. The full note is available here.

UPDATE 5:16 p.m. ET: Observers on the ground are relaying anecdotal reports that MAS delegates are absent from a number of voting centers. In Santa Cruz, one observer notes “the fear of being identified with MAS in some neighborhoods is strong” after visiting a voting center without any MAS delegate present. Voting has now officially come to a close. 

UPDATE 4:48 p.m. ET: Juan Carlos Núñez, the director of Fundacion Jubileo, which is planning to release it’s own unofficial quick count this evening, reports difficulties in taking photos of tally sheets especially in rural areas. Notes confusion after the TSE’s decision not to use the DIREPRE preliminary results system. 

Voting in Bolivia will be coming to a close shortly and the all-important counting process will begin. The TSE noted that voting centers with lines will remain open. Tally sheets are produced at each voting table at the conclusion of the count, copies are provided to party delegates as well as the notary present. There is no problem with taking photos of tally sheets. 

UPDATE 4:20 p.m. ET: As polling centers abroad close, a number of fake images of vote total have circulated on social networks, Bolivia Verifica notes. A reminder that the TSE has scrapped the DIREPRE preliminary results system. Official results will begin being processed this evening, but expectations are that it will take at least a couple of days until all votes are counted. 

UPDATE 3:58 p.m. ET: Thomas Becker, Supervisor of the University Network for Human Rights, Tweeted from Senkata, site of an infamous post-coup massacre in November:

UPDATE 3:48 p.m.: An observer reports from the Bella Vista center in La Paz: “Two people (one a senior citizen) reported they had been purged from voting list. They complained bitterly, since they voted in this place last year. They are very distressed because since voting is mandatory they need proof that they voted to carry out basic bank transactions.” 

Code Pink observer Leonardo Flores Tweeted “So far, I’ve seen two people turned away from voting centers, as they had apparently been disqualified. Both were senior women, one indigenous.” (See his thread on this here.)

UPDATE 3:31 p.m.: Ombudsperson Nadia Cruz told the press that there were some 200 individuals deployed across the country to monitor the human rights situation in the context of today’s elections. Cruz also said she had reported last night’s mobilization of the military to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. Cruz held a press conference earlier today, available here.

UPDATE 2:35 p.m.: The Progressive International’s David Adler recorded an update on its team’s observations at eight voting centers so far today:

UPDATE 2:23 p.m.: An observer in Santa Cruz reported at 1:39 p.m.: “Just observed vote by candidate Brenda Segovia [was detained last week, and her campaign office was attacked]. There were people in white laying in wait for her who dispersed when I came in.” He writes, “They were inside and went out when I came in. I waited from inside and they yelled at her as she approached, but only from a distance.”

UPDATE 2:04 p.m. ET: TSE head Salvador Romero announced that the counting of votes from precincts abroad will begin at 5:00 p.m. ET, with counting of votes from departmental precincts to start at 6:00 p.m. ET.

UPDATE 1:40 p.m. ET: The TSE says that voting has now ended in Spain, and presumably elsewhere in Europe. Voting is also over in Asia, where the day’s first votes were cast.

In Bolivian elections, eligible voters living abroad must vote on election day.

UPDATE 1:28 p.m. ET: Long lines are being reported by journalists and observers at some locations in La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Potosí, Tarija, and elsewhere. El Deber reports that TSE president Salvador Romero has said that people who were unable to vote in the morning, due to long lines, will be able to vote in the afternoon. As El Deber reports, voter cards indicate whether voters should vote in the morning or the afternoon, but Romero says this is only a recommendation.

UPDATE 12:50 p.m. ET: An observer in Santa Cruz reports a “Military presence outside voting place in Plan 3000.” On Twitter, La Razon noted the presence of armed members of the military in various voting centers in La Paz:

UPDATE 12:29 p.m. ET: An observer on the ground met earlier with the Asociación Pro Derechos Bolivianos. The rights group expressed three main concerns at the moment: 1) general confusion, e.g., voting places being changed; 2) lack of organization, which they attribute to TSE; 3) issues of security, as nothing is being done about threats coming from shock or paramilitary groups.

UPDATE 12:15 p.m. ET: An observer in Santa Cruz reported at 11:57 a.m.: “Military presence outside voting place in Plan 3000. Inside delegates are wearing armbands, not caps, including Creemos.” He reports he had previously been told that “the delegates should be wearing armbands, not caps, at the polling place, but should not vote with their armbands on.”

UPDATE 11:35 a.m. ET: Los Tiempos reports that leading conservative candidate Carlos Mesa is urging calm and patience. “We are going to act with great prudence, knowing that any declaration can generate unnecessary conflicts,” he told the media at the voting center where he cast his ballot. These sentiments echo a statement from his CC party regarding the TSE’s announcement last night that the preliminary count would be scrapped: “it is not ideal, but we understand it, we are going to be patient and we ask the population to be the same.”

UPDATE 11:05 a.m. ET: An observer in Santa Cruz reported long lines at the Colegio San Martín in the 4 de Noviembre neighborhood at 10:26 a.m., where there are 33 voting tables. “Only police at the door but Creemos delegates are wearing party caps at the tables, and the MAS is objecting.” Media outlets have reported long lines at many polling centers this morning.

UPDATE 10:37 a.m. ET: Just before 10:00 a.m. ET, journalist Ollie Vargas Tweeted from Miraflores in La Paz:

UPDATE 10:28 a.m. ET: Observer David Adler, of the Progressive International observers’ delegation, Tweeted a half hour ago from Ciudad Satélite in El Alto:

UPDATE 9:24 a.m. ET: Voting began abroad last night. In Japan and China, the vote has already come to a close — though there were only limited numbers of registered voters. In Barcelona, Spain (the country is home to one of the largest Bolivian populations) El Deber this morning reported a delay in opening and that some were unable to vote. There had been concerns in recent days that some countries had yet to provide authorization for the opening of voting centers. In Chile, home to more than 32,000 registered Bolivian voters, voting is only due to take place in Santiago as much of the rest of Chile remains under strict coronavirus lockdown. Some 28,000 Bolivians in Chile reside outside of Santiago. There will be no vote in Panama today.

UPDATE 9:18 a.m. ET: Last night, the president of the TSE, Salvador Romero, announced that, in order to avoid confusion and focus on the official results, there would not be a preliminary results system as in last year’s election. The surprise announcement came after CEPR expressed concern earlier in the week about changes made to the preliminary results system, known as DIREPRE (concerns that were echoed by US Senator Ed Markey, among others).

The TSE had planned to only release partially disaggregated data with the preliminary results, which would have made it difficult to determine how representative those initial results were. In the 2019 vote, initial results provided through the preliminary results system (then known as TREP), appeared to show the election headed toward a second round. However, as additional votes came in, the MAS party continued to extend its advantage – eventually securing more than a 10 percentage point lead in the official results.

There was a concern this year that parties would again seize on those partial and non-representative results to claim a definitive result before all votes were actually counted. Now, without preliminary results, the country will have to wait for the much slower, but more thorough, official results (which are processed through the Computo system). The decision to scrap the DIREPRE received support from many international observer groups, including the OAS, Carter Center, and UN. The parties of the three leading candidates all released statements last night following the announcement, expressing various levels of concern over the decision.

It is interesting to note that allegations of electoral fraud in last year’s vote focused predominantly on the non-binding preliminary results system. In the OAS’s audit of the election, the vast majority of findings related to the TREP. In March, CEPR published an 82-page report detailing myriad errors in the OAS’s audit. One critique was that the OAS focused on a legally non-binding preliminary vote count. That the OAS would now ratify the decision to stop the preliminary system all together is yet another indication that allegations of fraud in last year’s vote were unsubstantiated.

While the decision to stop the DIREPRE may help avoid confusion, the lack of a preliminary results system is an overall blow to electoral transparency. In 2019, the TSE released detailed results data in downloadable Excel documents as the preliminary system tallied votes and also released photos of each tally sheet. Having two records of the results, processed in distinct manners (as is the case with the preliminary system and the Computo) can serve as an important check against potential fraud as the results from the two systems can be compared against one another.

While there will be no preliminary results announced by the TSE today, a number of exit polls are expected this evening. Given the problems of sample bias and the wide margin for error in these polls, it is vital that all actors, especially international observer missions, avoid reading too much into these early snapshots and wait for all the votes to be counted. It is also important to keep in mind that votes processed through the official Computo system are physically transported from voting centers to department electoral offices for processing. The first votes to be processed will therefore most likely be from more urban areas and will not be representative of the overall results. In 2019, the MAS party consistently increased its overall vote share as the official tally progressed. 

UPDATE 9:09 a.m. ET: Election observers were alarmed to see a large presence of combined military and police forces in the streets last night in La Paz, Cochabamba, and elsewhere — an unusual occurrence for a Bolivian election. The Cochabamba-based Andean Information Network noted on Twitter: “Bolivia’s electoral law states that the National Electoral Court commands the security forces on election day (Art. 148). Forces must be confined to their bases until voting ends. (Art. 149). Añez/Murillo’s militarization of the streets is a clear violation of Bolivian law.”

Áñez says the presence of security forces in the streets will ensure that the elections are “transparent, free, and without pressure.”

_______________________________

Bolivians go to the polls today, Sunday, October 18, in the first general elections since the last democratically elected president, Evo Morales, was forced out in a military coup last November, two months before his term had ended and despite election results showing he had won another term in a first-round election victory. Today’s elections had been postponed twice: first from May to September, and then from September to October. While Jeanine Áñez, whose party had received just 4 percent of the vote last year, had taken office vowing to be a caretaker president until new elections were organized, her government enacted significant policy reforms and Áñez herself was running as a presidential candidate until she dropped out in mid-September.

The leading candidates in these elections are former economy minister Luis Arce of Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party; and Carlos Mesa of Comunidad Ciudadana (CC), a conservative former president who ran second to Morales in last year’s elections. The only other candidate anticipated to receive more than 3 percent of the vote is Fernando Camacho, a businessman and right-wing activist from Santa Cruz. A dispersed field of candidates has narrowed in recent weeks as pressure built to consolidate behind Mesa as the only option in defeating the MAS.

The Organization of American States (OAS) is being tasked with again determining the legitimacy of the electoral process and results, despite its role in arbitrarily delegitimizing the results of last year’s elections and paving the way for the coup that followed. The OAS is joined by delegations of election monitors from the European Union, the Carter Center, the Grupo de Puebla, the Progressive International, Parlasur, COPPAL, Code Pink, academics with expertise on Bolivia and Latin America, and others.

Human rights leaders in Argentina, including Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, have filed a complaint against Almagro and the OAS Electoral Observer Mission before the UN’s Office of the High Commission on Human Rights. This year’s OAS observation mission is led by the same individual that led last year’s.

This time, the OAS is calling on everyone to respect the results of the election as reported. This despite Almagro raising the possibility of another MAS “fraud” after meeting with de facto interior minister Arturo Murillo in Washington DC last month. The OAS — and other international entities — however, have said little about the worrying pre-election atmosphere.

For example, in an incident seen by many as political persecution, MAS legislative candidate Brenda Segovia was arrested in Santa Cruz on Monday, October 12, following a far-right group attack on a MAS office in her neighborhood. The de facto authorities have also slapped various MAS leaders, among them candidate Luis Arce, with charges that include “sedition,” “terrorism” and “corruption” that are seen by many as a form of political persecution and harassment. Human Rights Watch has examined other cases of charges against former Morales officials that “appear to be politically motivated.”

De facto government officials, in particular Interior Minister Arturo Murillo, have denounced the MAS party and stoked fear in deeply concerning ways that call into question the fairness of the electoral process under its control. On Friday, October 16, the Minister of Justice accused the MAS of planning to “kill people” if it loses the elections.

They have also singled out some independent international election observers, referring to them as “agitators,” and warning they could be jailed or “put on a plane.” Members of the Code Pink delegation were stalked en route to Bolivia, with photos of them posted online along with incendiary messages describing them as “terrorists.” On October 16, state security detained a member of an officially accredited observer delegation from the Argentine congress when they arrived in La Paz. 

Partly in response to the threats, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “Everyone should be able to exercise the right to vote in peace, without intimidation or violence. These elections represent an opportunity to really move forward on social and economic fronts, and to defuse the extreme polarization that has been plaguing Bolivia over the past few years,” and added “It is essential that all sides avoid further acts of violence that could spark a confrontation.” 

Once voting is finished, it will likely be days before the results are known. This is because in a surprise last-minute announcement, Bolivia’s electoral authorities, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE), said that there will not be a preliminary count on election night. This follows alarms raised by CEPR and others after the UNDP office in La Paz stated: “Disaggregation level of the results will be at Polling precinct level (recinto electoral) and most probably there will not be a excel [sic] sheet for public download.” As votes were processed in the 2019 election, analysts were able to download Excel sheets of disaggregated results data. Analysis of this data allowed them to show that there was no statistical basis for the Organization of American States’ claims questioning the validity of the results showing that President Evo Morales had won a first-round victory.

The official results will begin being processed on election day but are not expected to be finalized until at least Wednesday. Considering the uncertainty around what is likely to happen today — i.e., whether a candidate, such as Arce, will win a first-round victory, as many polls suggest is possible, or whether the elections will head to a runoff on November 29 — it remains to be seen whether the decision to scrap the quick count will defuse tensions, or contribute to them.

This post was updated on October 13, 2020.

The Americas Blog featured a post last week about the growing wave of election interference and misinformation campaigns sweeping Latin America, especially as a tool of right-wing governments and political movements. As these digital operations have grown in popularity, so has the market for firms to organize them. In particular, new details about the recent Latin American operations of a US public relations firm called CLS Strategies illustrate that Americans are not just on the receiving end of manipulative social media campaigns, but are participants in them as well.

There is a long history of “crisis public relations (PR)” firms taking contracts with foreign governments or opposition movements, lobbying on their behalf or otherwise helping them “improve their image” in Washington. But on September 1st, Facebook announced its removal of “55 Facebook accounts, 42 Pages and 36 Instagram accounts” which were linked to the DC-based CLS Strategies, the first time that such action has been taken against a US PR firm.

According to Facebook, CLS Strategies oversaw coordinated social media campaigns in which sockpuppet accounts, often pretending to be locals, “posted content in support of the political opposition in Venezuela and the interim government in Bolivia, and criticism of Morena,” the party of Mexico’s current President. Their pages, which violated Facebook’s policy against “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign entity,” had been followed by roughly 509,000 Facebook accounts and 43,000 Instagram accounts. $3.6 million was spent on Facebook ads for the campaigns, far more than the roughly $150,000 reportedly spent by Russian operatives on ads on the same platform.

In Bolivia particularly, the impact of this campaign may have been severe. CLS received a contract to “provide strategic counsel to the government of Bolivia” just one month after former President Evo Morales was ousted in a coup. Allegations of electoral fraud levied by the Organization of American States have provided a political justification for the ouster but have been repeatedly shown to be baseless. In the time between the coup and CLS accepting the contract, the de facto government of Jeanine Áñez repeatedly opened fire on protesters, resulting in numerous deaths. During the length of the contract, the far right Áñez government engaged in a stunning array of human rights violations.

While the government’s political repression of those associated with Morales intensified, the firm oversaw 11 fake Bolivian Facebook pages which promoted inflammatory content, such as ads alluding to Morales as a “mobster” and “coward.” One now-locked page sought to spread confusion in Bolivia by selling itself as a fact-checking page while actually just posting content in support of Bolivia’s de facto government; in fact, it once even shared fact-checks from legitimate organizations and contradicted them, labelled their findings “fake news.” CLS Strategies’ official slogan is “Unexpected Solutions.”

During a time of high tension which frequently broke out into violence on the streets of Bolivia, CLS intentionally sought to further stoke these tensions from their downtown DC offices. The firm has refused to answer most questions from journalists, but did say that they have “a long tradition of doing international work, including on social media, to promote free and open elections and to oppose oppressive regimes…” In a statement (which was later deleted), CLS added that they “take very seriously the issues raised by Facebook and others,” have hired a law firm for an internal investigation, and have placed the “head of [their] Latin American practice” on leave.

According to research by Stanford University’s Internet Observatory, among the accounts that Facebook identified in the operation were 6-8 profiles which appear to be the personal accounts of CLS staff. Around this same time, CLS Strategies removed seven staff profiles from the “Our Team” section of their website. There is no confirmation that all seven were involved in the various campaigns across Latin America, but both public reporting and lobbying disclosures tell us that two of these seven— Juan Cortiñas and William Moore— were registered to lobby on behalf of the de facto Bolivian government.

According to Juan Cortiñas’ formerly public profile on the website, his “expansive international portfolio includes work in all major Latin American countries advising political leaders and corporations.” Once press secretary for former congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Cortiñas now engages in political communications work in the region. Unmentioned on his profile is that he was also involved in a CLS contract to improve the image of the authoritarian de facto Honduran government after a similar military coup occurred there in 2009.

William Moore, on the other hand, began his career in PR while working in Colombia. In 2018, he was recognized as a “Rising Star” at an industry luncheon and was praised for his “hard work and dedication” by Cortiñas in a CLS statement.

Among the five other now-hidden staffers, two others have noteworthy backgrounds. CLS Senior Advisor David Romley not only had his profile removed from the website, but also had the statement announcing his 2019 hiring made private; news of the hiring remains public elsewhere. Romley was a Military Affairs Fellow in the office of former Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a Pentagon spokesperson during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a senior advisor at the conservative Hudson Institute, and the Senior Vice President for the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a hawkish think tank with an extensive bipartisan network. When he was hired at CNAS, future Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis— both a board member of the organization and Romley’s former commanding officer— said “it’s heartening that David will be on the team to achieve our goals.”

Also among the now-hidden staffers is Mark Feierstein. Feierstein briefly worked as the Director of the Global Elections Office at USAID (the US government’s foreign aid agency) in the late 1990’s, spent over a decade in the private sector, and then returned to spend another five years at USAID as an Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Carribean. Later, he served as Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs in President Obama’s National Security Council, during which he spent six months as a Special Assistant to the president. On top of serving as Senior Advisor to CLS Strategies, his more recent resume also includes positions at CSIS, a right-leaning corporate-funded think tank, and Albright Stonebridge Group, a powerful lobbying organization chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Feierstein has been a subject of quiet speculation as a potential pick to staff a Biden administration due to his connections to the Obama administration and his strong support for the campaign. He frequently promotes Biden fundraisers on social media, has signed a public letter in support of him, and has a license plate on his car that reads, simply, “BIDEN.”

Feierstein’s LinkedIn claims his employment at CLS ended in April of 2020— shortly after the firm’s 90-day contract with the Bolivian government would have ended— but he was present on CLS’s “Our Team” page as recently as September 3. CLS described him as “a principal strategist for winning national campaigns in Austria, Bolivia, El Salvador, and Honduras” who also “designed communications strategies for major multinational companies, including Boeing, BP and Monsanto.”

Feierstein was featured in the 2005 documentary Our Brand Is Crisis, where he and his team succeeded in helping Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (known in short as “Goni”) narrowly beat Evo Morales in Bolivia’s 2002 elections. Goni’s short tenure was marked by mass social unrest sparked by his unpopular economic policies. In October of 2003 Goni fled to exile in the United States after his government carried out a violent crackdown in which over 60 protesters and bystanders were killed.

Feierstein has remained unrepentant regarding his involvement in Goni’s presidential campaign, even stating that he was “proud of the role that we played in electing Goni” during an interview a few years after the October massacre. For years Bolivian authorities and victims of the massacre demanded that the US extradite Goni in order for him to face justice in Bolivia, but— as one of the victims’ lawyers told Bolivia expert Linda Farthing— the chances of success “were slim” given that Goni was “closely connected to high levels of the Democratic party and the Obama administration.”

On top of his work in Bolivia, Feierstein has also publicly called for further policy action towards removing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro— one of the targets of CLS’s recent campaigns. In one op-ed written shortly before taking his position at CLS, Feierstein argued that “Venezuela should rank among the Trump administration’s highest foreign policy priorities.” In another, written during his time at the firm, he took issue with direct military intervention but argued that “[t]he palatable policy tools that have helped advance democratic transitions around the world in recent years could very well fall short in Venezuela.” By the time the latter op-ed was published, nine of CLS’s fake Venezuelan pages had already been created, suggesting that Feierstein’s employer may have already had an undisclosed contract to support the Venezuelan opposition when he wrote it.

The potential involvement of Feierstein in these contracts raises the prospect of other ethical malfeasance. As part of their contract to improve the reputation of the Bolivian government, CLS’s lobbying disclosures reveal their attempts to set up meetings between Bolivia’s de facto Minister of Government, Arturo Murillo, and numerous Washington power players. On December 16, 2019, the firm helped set up a meeting with USAID’s Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Carribean, a position that Feierstein held for five years during the Obama administration. This is further concerning because the meeting runs directly counter to the spirit of US law, which prohibits aid to coup governments.

These ethical considerations emerge just from a few recent Latin American contracts belonging to just one firm. CLS Strategies alone lists 16 other countries it has worked in, and many more firms engage in similar kinds of work all over the world.

One final piece of this puzzle is the matter of funding: roughly $3.6 million across Bolivia, Mexico, and Venezuela, “paid for primarily in US dollars.” Both the Bolivian government and CLS Strategies have been very clear that the Bolivian government itself did not put up any of the money for the operation. CLS was paid “a fee” for the project, but the origin of the millions spent on Facebook ads remains unaccounted for. According to CLS, this funding came from “clients inside each country”; who these clients are remains a mystery.

The scale of CLS Strategies’ political interference operations in Latin America, their hidden sources of funding, and the deep political connections of those many of the individuals working for the firm, all come together to paint a troubling, albeit still very opaque, picture. The DC-based firm was paid to knowingly misrepresent themselves to hundreds of thousands of people in order to dishonestly promote right-wing movements and governments, including an undemocratic government responsible for egregious human rights violations. CLS’s story is instructive as an example of how this type of digital manipulation is a growing threat for nations around the world.

This post was updated on October 13, 2020.

The Americas Blog featured a post last week about the growing wave of election interference and misinformation campaigns sweeping Latin America, especially as a tool of right-wing governments and political movements. As these digital operations have grown in popularity, so has the market for firms to organize them. In particular, new details about the recent Latin American operations of a US public relations firm called CLS Strategies illustrate that Americans are not just on the receiving end of manipulative social media campaigns, but are participants in them as well.

There is a long history of “crisis public relations (PR)” firms taking contracts with foreign governments or opposition movements, lobbying on their behalf or otherwise helping them “improve their image” in Washington. But on September 1st, Facebook announced its removal of “55 Facebook accounts, 42 Pages and 36 Instagram accounts” which were linked to the DC-based CLS Strategies, the first time that such action has been taken against a US PR firm.

According to Facebook, CLS Strategies oversaw coordinated social media campaigns in which sockpuppet accounts, often pretending to be locals, “posted content in support of the political opposition in Venezuela and the interim government in Bolivia, and criticism of Morena,” the party of Mexico’s current President. Their pages, which violated Facebook’s policy against “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign entity,” had been followed by roughly 509,000 Facebook accounts and 43,000 Instagram accounts. $3.6 million was spent on Facebook ads for the campaigns, far more than the roughly $150,000 reportedly spent by Russian operatives on ads on the same platform.

In Bolivia particularly, the impact of this campaign may have been severe. CLS received a contract to “provide strategic counsel to the government of Bolivia” just one month after former President Evo Morales was ousted in a coup. Allegations of electoral fraud levied by the Organization of American States have provided a political justification for the ouster but have been repeatedly shown to be baseless. In the time between the coup and CLS accepting the contract, the de facto government of Jeanine Áñez repeatedly opened fire on protesters, resulting in numerous deaths. During the length of the contract, the far right Áñez government engaged in a stunning array of human rights violations.

While the government’s political repression of those associated with Morales intensified, the firm oversaw 11 fake Bolivian Facebook pages which promoted inflammatory content, such as ads alluding to Morales as a “mobster” and “coward.” One now-locked page sought to spread confusion in Bolivia by selling itself as a fact-checking page while actually just posting content in support of Bolivia’s de facto government; in fact, it once even shared fact-checks from legitimate organizations and contradicted them, labelled their findings “fake news.” CLS Strategies’ official slogan is “Unexpected Solutions.”

During a time of high tension which frequently broke out into violence on the streets of Bolivia, CLS intentionally sought to further stoke these tensions from their downtown DC offices. The firm has refused to answer most questions from journalists, but did say that they have “a long tradition of doing international work, including on social media, to promote free and open elections and to oppose oppressive regimes…” In a statement (which was later deleted), CLS added that they “take very seriously the issues raised by Facebook and others,” have hired a law firm for an internal investigation, and have placed the “head of [their] Latin American practice” on leave.

According to research by Stanford University’s Internet Observatory, among the accounts that Facebook identified in the operation were 6-8 profiles which appear to be the personal accounts of CLS staff. Around this same time, CLS Strategies removed seven staff profiles from the “Our Team” section of their website. There is no confirmation that all seven were involved in the various campaigns across Latin America, but both public reporting and lobbying disclosures tell us that two of these seven— Juan Cortiñas and William Moore— were registered to lobby on behalf of the de facto Bolivian government.

According to Juan Cortiñas’ formerly public profile on the website, his “expansive international portfolio includes work in all major Latin American countries advising political leaders and corporations.” Once press secretary for former congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Cortiñas now engages in political communications work in the region. Unmentioned on his profile is that he was also involved in a CLS contract to improve the image of the authoritarian de facto Honduran government after a similar military coup occurred there in 2009.

William Moore, on the other hand, began his career in PR while working in Colombia. In 2018, he was recognized as a “Rising Star” at an industry luncheon and was praised for his “hard work and dedication” by Cortiñas in a CLS statement.

Among the five other now-hidden staffers, two others have noteworthy backgrounds. CLS Senior Advisor David Romley not only had his profile removed from the website, but also had the statement announcing his 2019 hiring made private; news of the hiring remains public elsewhere. Romley was a Military Affairs Fellow in the office of former Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a Pentagon spokesperson during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a senior advisor at the conservative Hudson Institute, and the Senior Vice President for the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a hawkish think tank with an extensive bipartisan network. When he was hired at CNAS, future Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis— both a board member of the organization and Romley’s former commanding officer— said “it’s heartening that David will be on the team to achieve our goals.”

Also among the now-hidden staffers is Mark Feierstein. Feierstein briefly worked as the Director of the Global Elections Office at USAID (the US government’s foreign aid agency) in the late 1990’s, spent over a decade in the private sector, and then returned to spend another five years at USAID as an Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Carribean. Later, he served as Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs in President Obama’s National Security Council, during which he spent six months as a Special Assistant to the president. On top of serving as Senior Advisor to CLS Strategies, his more recent resume also includes positions at CSIS, a right-leaning corporate-funded think tank, and Albright Stonebridge Group, a powerful lobbying organization chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Feierstein has been a subject of quiet speculation as a potential pick to staff a Biden administration due to his connections to the Obama administration and his strong support for the campaign. He frequently promotes Biden fundraisers on social media, has signed a public letter in support of him, and has a license plate on his car that reads, simply, “BIDEN.”

Feierstein’s LinkedIn claims his employment at CLS ended in April of 2020— shortly after the firm’s 90-day contract with the Bolivian government would have ended— but he was present on CLS’s “Our Team” page as recently as September 3. CLS described him as “a principal strategist for winning national campaigns in Austria, Bolivia, El Salvador, and Honduras” who also “designed communications strategies for major multinational companies, including Boeing, BP and Monsanto.”

Feierstein was featured in the 2005 documentary Our Brand Is Crisis, where he and his team succeeded in helping Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (known in short as “Goni”) narrowly beat Evo Morales in Bolivia’s 2002 elections. Goni’s short tenure was marked by mass social unrest sparked by his unpopular economic policies. In October of 2003 Goni fled to exile in the United States after his government carried out a violent crackdown in which over 60 protesters and bystanders were killed.

Feierstein has remained unrepentant regarding his involvement in Goni’s presidential campaign, even stating that he was “proud of the role that we played in electing Goni” during an interview a few years after the October massacre. For years Bolivian authorities and victims of the massacre demanded that the US extradite Goni in order for him to face justice in Bolivia, but— as one of the victims’ lawyers told Bolivia expert Linda Farthing— the chances of success “were slim” given that Goni was “closely connected to high levels of the Democratic party and the Obama administration.”

On top of his work in Bolivia, Feierstein has also publicly called for further policy action towards removing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro— one of the targets of CLS’s recent campaigns. In one op-ed written shortly before taking his position at CLS, Feierstein argued that “Venezuela should rank among the Trump administration’s highest foreign policy priorities.” In another, written during his time at the firm, he took issue with direct military intervention but argued that “[t]he palatable policy tools that have helped advance democratic transitions around the world in recent years could very well fall short in Venezuela.” By the time the latter op-ed was published, nine of CLS’s fake Venezuelan pages had already been created, suggesting that Feierstein’s employer may have already had an undisclosed contract to support the Venezuelan opposition when he wrote it.

The potential involvement of Feierstein in these contracts raises the prospect of other ethical malfeasance. As part of their contract to improve the reputation of the Bolivian government, CLS’s lobbying disclosures reveal their attempts to set up meetings between Bolivia’s de facto Minister of Government, Arturo Murillo, and numerous Washington power players. On December 16, 2019, the firm helped set up a meeting with USAID’s Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Carribean, a position that Feierstein held for five years during the Obama administration. This is further concerning because the meeting runs directly counter to the spirit of US law, which prohibits aid to coup governments.

These ethical considerations emerge just from a few recent Latin American contracts belonging to just one firm. CLS Strategies alone lists 16 other countries it has worked in, and many more firms engage in similar kinds of work all over the world.

One final piece of this puzzle is the matter of funding: roughly $3.6 million across Bolivia, Mexico, and Venezuela, “paid for primarily in US dollars.” Both the Bolivian government and CLS Strategies have been very clear that the Bolivian government itself did not put up any of the money for the operation. CLS was paid “a fee” for the project, but the origin of the millions spent on Facebook ads remains unaccounted for. According to CLS, this funding came from “clients inside each country”; who these clients are remains a mystery.

The scale of CLS Strategies’ political interference operations in Latin America, their hidden sources of funding, and the deep political connections of those many of the individuals working for the firm, all come together to paint a troubling, albeit still very opaque, picture. The DC-based firm was paid to knowingly misrepresent themselves to hundreds of thousands of people in order to dishonestly promote right-wing movements and governments, including an undemocratic government responsible for egregious human rights violations. CLS’s story is instructive as an example of how this type of digital manipulation is a growing threat for nations around the world.

Many people in the US first became aware of the problem of election interference on social media when allegations emerged of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 US elections through the dissemination of “fake news” on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. But as we learn more about the phenomenon, it is becoming increasingly clear that dishonest social media campaigns are a global issue, and that many private and government actors are now routinely using disinformation campaigns to influence elections. Indeed, in Latin America, such tactics have already become a go-to strategy for many right-wing movements and governments.

Earlier this month, Buzzfeed reported on a memo written by a Facebook data scientist-turned-whistleblower that provides new details on Facebook’s haphazard approach towards identifying manipulative political campaigns on their platform. The whistleblower, Sophie Zhang, noted that when Facebook did enforce its rules, it focused on “harm and priority regions like the United States and Western Europe” where political interference campaigns were most likely to spark public issues for the company. When these campaigns were spotted in smaller countries with less Western news coverage, Facebook “simply didn’t care enough to stop them.” One manager at Facebook joked to Zhang that “most of the world outside the West was effectively the Wild West with [her] as the part-time dictator.”

Zhang’s memo also points to a number of concrete examples of political manipulation campaigns from around the world, including particularly salient examples from Latin America. During Brazil’s 2018 election, millions of “fake reactions and fans” supporting “major politicians of all persuasions” were taken down. Following the disqualification of popular former President Lula de Silva due to dubious and politically-driven corruption charges, far-right nationalist Jair Bolsonaro won the 2018 Brazilian presidential election. His victory was aided by a large-scale fake news operation which sent out hundreds of millions of WhatsApp messages to Brazilian voters. Pro-Bolsonaro businessmen illegally funded the operation to the tune of over $3 million USD. Thus, even in an instance where Facebook did take action, campaigns still continued elsewhere.

In Honduras, the marketing team for conservative President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) “openly admitted” to operating hundreds of fake accounts supportive of him. Despite this, it took Zhang over a year to have the profiles removed, only for them to reemerge “within two weeks”; she adds that “the activity is still live and well.” JOH won Honduras’ 2017 elections by a narrow margin, but widespread allegations of electoral fraud led to protests which were met by state violence that resulted in dozens of killings, as well as a ten-day national curfew. In the brief period following this election, research found that a majority of Tweets which tagged JOH were sent from TweetDeck, a type of software used to send Tweets automatically. Despite domestic and international calls for a new election due to the statistical impossibility of the results and clear evidence of manipulation, the US government recognized JOH – a Trump ally – as Honduras’ legitimate leader and pressured other conservative allies in the region to follow suit. He has since been implicated by US prosecutors in drug trafficking activities.

Meanwhile, Zhang also identified political interference campaigns on behalf of the conservative government in Ecuador and the right-wing opposition in Bolivia during that country’s 2019 elections, shortly before a coup overthrew the elected Bolivian government. Facebook caught both of these campaigns but decided that they weren’t worthy of prioritizing.

In Ecuador, Zhang says that she “found inauthentic activity supporting the ruling government… and made the decision not to prioritize it.” The government of Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno, who has an approval rating in the single digits due to his austerity policies and his disastrous coronavirus response, claimed in April that it was the victim of a fake news campaign in connection to its COVID-19 response. The presence of these campaigns without any rules enforcement on the part of Facebook raises concerns about Ecuador’s upcoming election in February of 2021, where Moreno’s government has increasingly sought ways to simply prevent their opponents from running at all.

An entire cottage industry has begun to emerge aimed at profiting from social media manipulation. In recent years, a variety of Latin American political actors have used their services. One firm, the SCL Group, bragged on company brochures that it engaged in an “ambitious campaign of political graffiti” that “ostensibly came from the youth” in the run-up to Trinidad and Tobago’s 2010 elections. The purpose of the campaign was to increase political apathy among Afro-Trinidadian youth who often vote for the nation’s center-left party. That party lost the election by 4 points. Another company, Hacking Team, had contracts with seven Latin American governments to help them track and disrupt political dissidents.

In 2013, SCL created Cambridge Analytica, a firm which existed for only five years before dissolving due to a massive scandal involving their misuse of Facebook data in attempting to influence the 2016 US elections. But before closing, the firm had established a partnership with a video app called Pig.gi that had over 1 million downloads in Mexico and Colombia, and aimed to use its ads to influence young voters. This led the Mexican government to investigate, while Colombia blocked the app entirely. Brazil’s investigation into Cambridge Analytica resulted in the country fining Facebook for $1.6 million USD over yet another app with improper access to the site’s user data.

The involvement of sophisticated, politically-connected European and American firms in these sorts of political manipulation tactics raises a number of disturbing questions. Largely unknown to the public, a number of powerful companies in wealthy nations seem to be profiting from the modern mercenary work of spreading misinformation and manipulative content in developing nations without proper monitoring and accountability in place, as Zhang’s memo made clear. The consequences of this political destabilization can be devastating.

For proof of this, one need to look no further than Bolivia, another place where Facebook had until recently ignored manipulation operations. After last year’s coup, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights noted the creation of 68,000 fake Twitter accounts promoting a set of hashtags which ultimately saw over one million Tweets created in under ten days. Much of the online activity promoted right-wing opposition leader Luis Fernando Camacho and the nation’s new de facto President, Jeanine Añez. Worse, social media campaigns sought to direct a campaign of harassment and violence against members of the MAS party that was removed from power in the coup, spreading “lists containing their home addresses, telephone numbers, families’ addresses, and other personal information… along with photomontages in which their faces appear under ‘wanted’ signs and similar phrases.” Several times, the victims of these campaigns had “their homes or those of their relatives… raided, vandalized, or set on fire.” In addition, “smear campaigns that were allegedly shared through different social media” against foreign correspondents in Bolivia sometimes “included photographs of them and the addresses of the hotels where they were staying,” prompting many to leave the country.

While an amateur bot operation sending out up to 69 Tweets per second in support of last year’s coup in Bolivia made a few headlines, more professional actors were involved too. Around the turn of this year, CLS Strategies, a DC-based public relations firm, was involved in an organized social media interference campaign supporting Bolivia’s undemocratic and authoritarian government. It’s worthwhile to take a closer look at CLS’s Bolivia work to get a better idea of the nexus that exists between US political operatives and powerful Latin American groups and individuals, including some of the worst modern-day autocrats in the region.

Stay tuned for part two of this post, “Why a DC PR Firm Pretended to Be Bolivian on Facebook.”

Many people in the US first became aware of the problem of election interference on social media when allegations emerged of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 US elections through the dissemination of “fake news” on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. But as we learn more about the phenomenon, it is becoming increasingly clear that dishonest social media campaigns are a global issue, and that many private and government actors are now routinely using disinformation campaigns to influence elections. Indeed, in Latin America, such tactics have already become a go-to strategy for many right-wing movements and governments.

Earlier this month, Buzzfeed reported on a memo written by a Facebook data scientist-turned-whistleblower that provides new details on Facebook’s haphazard approach towards identifying manipulative political campaigns on their platform. The whistleblower, Sophie Zhang, noted that when Facebook did enforce its rules, it focused on “harm and priority regions like the United States and Western Europe” where political interference campaigns were most likely to spark public issues for the company. When these campaigns were spotted in smaller countries with less Western news coverage, Facebook “simply didn’t care enough to stop them.” One manager at Facebook joked to Zhang that “most of the world outside the West was effectively the Wild West with [her] as the part-time dictator.”

Zhang’s memo also points to a number of concrete examples of political manipulation campaigns from around the world, including particularly salient examples from Latin America. During Brazil’s 2018 election, millions of “fake reactions and fans” supporting “major politicians of all persuasions” were taken down. Following the disqualification of popular former President Lula de Silva due to dubious and politically-driven corruption charges, far-right nationalist Jair Bolsonaro won the 2018 Brazilian presidential election. His victory was aided by a large-scale fake news operation which sent out hundreds of millions of WhatsApp messages to Brazilian voters. Pro-Bolsonaro businessmen illegally funded the operation to the tune of over $3 million USD. Thus, even in an instance where Facebook did take action, campaigns still continued elsewhere.

In Honduras, the marketing team for conservative President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) “openly admitted” to operating hundreds of fake accounts supportive of him. Despite this, it took Zhang over a year to have the profiles removed, only for them to reemerge “within two weeks”; she adds that “the activity is still live and well.” JOH won Honduras’ 2017 elections by a narrow margin, but widespread allegations of electoral fraud led to protests which were met by state violence that resulted in dozens of killings, as well as a ten-day national curfew. In the brief period following this election, research found that a majority of Tweets which tagged JOH were sent from TweetDeck, a type of software used to send Tweets automatically. Despite domestic and international calls for a new election due to the statistical impossibility of the results and clear evidence of manipulation, the US government recognized JOH – a Trump ally – as Honduras’ legitimate leader and pressured other conservative allies in the region to follow suit. He has since been implicated by US prosecutors in drug trafficking activities.

Meanwhile, Zhang also identified political interference campaigns on behalf of the conservative government in Ecuador and the right-wing opposition in Bolivia during that country’s 2019 elections, shortly before a coup overthrew the elected Bolivian government. Facebook caught both of these campaigns but decided that they weren’t worthy of prioritizing.

In Ecuador, Zhang says that she “found inauthentic activity supporting the ruling government… and made the decision not to prioritize it.” The government of Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno, who has an approval rating in the single digits due to his austerity policies and his disastrous coronavirus response, claimed in April that it was the victim of a fake news campaign in connection to its COVID-19 response. The presence of these campaigns without any rules enforcement on the part of Facebook raises concerns about Ecuador’s upcoming election in February of 2021, where Moreno’s government has increasingly sought ways to simply prevent their opponents from running at all.

An entire cottage industry has begun to emerge aimed at profiting from social media manipulation. In recent years, a variety of Latin American political actors have used their services. One firm, the SCL Group, bragged on company brochures that it engaged in an “ambitious campaign of political graffiti” that “ostensibly came from the youth” in the run-up to Trinidad and Tobago’s 2010 elections. The purpose of the campaign was to increase political apathy among Afro-Trinidadian youth who often vote for the nation’s center-left party. That party lost the election by 4 points. Another company, Hacking Team, had contracts with seven Latin American governments to help them track and disrupt political dissidents.

In 2013, SCL created Cambridge Analytica, a firm which existed for only five years before dissolving due to a massive scandal involving their misuse of Facebook data in attempting to influence the 2016 US elections. But before closing, the firm had established a partnership with a video app called Pig.gi that had over 1 million downloads in Mexico and Colombia, and aimed to use its ads to influence young voters. This led the Mexican government to investigate, while Colombia blocked the app entirely. Brazil’s investigation into Cambridge Analytica resulted in the country fining Facebook for $1.6 million USD over yet another app with improper access to the site’s user data.

The involvement of sophisticated, politically-connected European and American firms in these sorts of political manipulation tactics raises a number of disturbing questions. Largely unknown to the public, a number of powerful companies in wealthy nations seem to be profiting from the modern mercenary work of spreading misinformation and manipulative content in developing nations without proper monitoring and accountability in place, as Zhang’s memo made clear. The consequences of this political destabilization can be devastating.

For proof of this, one need to look no further than Bolivia, another place where Facebook had until recently ignored manipulation operations. After last year’s coup, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights noted the creation of 68,000 fake Twitter accounts promoting a set of hashtags which ultimately saw over one million Tweets created in under ten days. Much of the online activity promoted right-wing opposition leader Luis Fernando Camacho and the nation’s new de facto President, Jeanine Añez. Worse, social media campaigns sought to direct a campaign of harassment and violence against members of the MAS party that was removed from power in the coup, spreading “lists containing their home addresses, telephone numbers, families’ addresses, and other personal information… along with photomontages in which their faces appear under ‘wanted’ signs and similar phrases.” Several times, the victims of these campaigns had “their homes or those of their relatives… raided, vandalized, or set on fire.” In addition, “smear campaigns that were allegedly shared through different social media” against foreign correspondents in Bolivia sometimes “included photographs of them and the addresses of the hotels where they were staying,” prompting many to leave the country.

While an amateur bot operation sending out up to 69 Tweets per second in support of last year’s coup in Bolivia made a few headlines, more professional actors were involved too. Around the turn of this year, CLS Strategies, a DC-based public relations firm, was involved in an organized social media interference campaign supporting Bolivia’s undemocratic and authoritarian government. It’s worthwhile to take a closer look at CLS’s Bolivia work to get a better idea of the nexus that exists between US political operatives and powerful Latin American groups and individuals, including some of the worst modern-day autocrats in the region.

Stay tuned for part two of this post, “Why a DC PR Firm Pretended to Be Bolivian on Facebook.”

CEPR senior policy analyst and Ecuador’s former foreign minister Guillaume Long talked to This Is Hell about lawfare, the barring of former president Rafael Correa’s party from the ballot, and Ecuador’s turn toward austerity and the IMF under Moreno.

Ecuador’s right-wing and its media were “unhappy with progressive governance and the return of … a national project in favor of the Ecuadorian people … moving away from being the US’ backyard,” Long points out.

“The hard right, with this neoliberal project, has essentially tried to subvert the course of democracy. In Brazil, they barred Lula from running … In Bolivia right now, they’re trying to block the most popular party.”

CEPR senior policy analyst and Ecuador’s former foreign minister Guillaume Long talked to This Is Hell about lawfare, the barring of former president Rafael Correa’s party from the ballot, and Ecuador’s turn toward austerity and the IMF under Moreno.

Ecuador’s right-wing and its media were “unhappy with progressive governance and the return of … a national project in favor of the Ecuadorian people … moving away from being the US’ backyard,” Long points out.

“The hard right, with this neoliberal project, has essentially tried to subvert the course of democracy. In Brazil, they barred Lula from running … In Bolivia right now, they’re trying to block the most popular party.”

CEPR Research Assistant Brett Heinz published the following article at Current Affairs:

The nationwide protests against police brutality sparked by the killing of George Floyd have reignited debates over US policing. But the state response to the protests has also raised the question of where exactly “domestic” law enforcement stops and starts. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), an organization that describes its mission as “safeguard[ing] America’s borders,” has stated that it is deploying its officers around the country to help contain the protests. They are among officials from a wide variety of agencies serving as police on the streets of Washington, DC right now, many of whom have no identifying insignia at all. Though the CBP’s mandate is to police borders, it has the authority to conduct operations anywhere within 100 miles of a US border, an area encompassing about two-thirds of the American population. But even that can’t explain why the CBP recently flew a MQ-9 Reaper drone, designed for military use, to spy on Minneapolis, a city 250 miles from the nearest border.

The lines between the different roles of the US security state are thin. Local police receive surplus military equipment from the Pentagon, and often enforce immigration laws on behalf of immigration authorities. Active duty military, on the other hand, are deployed to the US border and downtown Washington, DC. These muddled roles help to illustrate how police brutality is not just a serious issue within the United States, but also one that the US projects on our borders and all over the world. 

Nowhere is this exchange more visible than in Latin America, a region that has long been treated by the US government as a guinea pig for testing out policy. From the Cold War, to the War on Drugs, to the War on Terror, the US has encouraged the development of aggressive and militarized law enforcement forces throughout Latin America, an authoritarian set of policies which eventually echoes back to the US and leads to further militarization of our own police.

Read the rest at Current Affairs.

CEPR Research Assistant Brett Heinz published the following article at Current Affairs:

The nationwide protests against police brutality sparked by the killing of George Floyd have reignited debates over US policing. But the state response to the protests has also raised the question of where exactly “domestic” law enforcement stops and starts. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), an organization that describes its mission as “safeguard[ing] America’s borders,” has stated that it is deploying its officers around the country to help contain the protests. They are among officials from a wide variety of agencies serving as police on the streets of Washington, DC right now, many of whom have no identifying insignia at all. Though the CBP’s mandate is to police borders, it has the authority to conduct operations anywhere within 100 miles of a US border, an area encompassing about two-thirds of the American population. But even that can’t explain why the CBP recently flew a MQ-9 Reaper drone, designed for military use, to spy on Minneapolis, a city 250 miles from the nearest border.

The lines between the different roles of the US security state are thin. Local police receive surplus military equipment from the Pentagon, and often enforce immigration laws on behalf of immigration authorities. Active duty military, on the other hand, are deployed to the US border and downtown Washington, DC. These muddled roles help to illustrate how police brutality is not just a serious issue within the United States, but also one that the US projects on our borders and all over the world. 

Nowhere is this exchange more visible than in Latin America, a region that has long been treated by the US government as a guinea pig for testing out policy. From the Cold War, to the War on Drugs, to the War on Terror, the US has encouraged the development of aggressive and militarized law enforcement forces throughout Latin America, an authoritarian set of policies which eventually echoes back to the US and leads to further militarization of our own police.

Read the rest at Current Affairs.

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